Higher Education Strategy Associates

The Best Argument for Free Tuition

As you’ve all probably noticed over the years, I have little patience for most arguments for free or reduced tuition.  There’s not much evidence it improves access.  Sure, it reduces costs for poorer students, but there are cheaper and more progressive ways to do that than to simply provide aid to all, regardless of ability to pay.

The argument in favour of charging fees is threefold.  One is about fairness: people who gain a personal advantage from using a service (and private returns to education are still excellent, no matter what the “hell-in-a-handbasket” crowd says) should contribute towards its upkeep; the “positive-externality-of-education” argument is correct, and leads to the conclusion that there should be some public support of higher education, but not that it should be exclusively supported that way.  The second argument is about equity: this is a service used disproportionately by the wealthier elements of society, and so using public money for it is always problematic (unless, that is, you adopt the ludicrous arguments espoused by Hugh McKenzie, and the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, that it’s still progressive to give more services to rich people on the grounds that they pay more taxes).  The third argument is simply pragmatic: there are masses of people who are affluent and willing to pay for higher education.  Why would you punt that?

The zero-tuition folks really only have one semi-effective rejoinder to this, which is that most of this is also true of secondary education.  Why free education for one and not the other?  The answer, of course, is that secondary education is compulsory and post-secondary is not.  But this answer is getting less obvious all the time.  A large majority of young people now do get some kind of post-secondary education, and we’re getting closer to universality all the time. If higher education is becoming universal, would it not make sense for at least some of it to be free?  Not all of it, mind you: the fairness and equity rules above would still apply.  But if it were introduced for higher education programs where the students aren’t disproportionately drawn from upper SES groups, and where the returns to education are fairly low, free tuition wouldn’t violate those rules.

An interesting movement is developing along these lines in the United States, with calls from both the left and the right to make two years of community college free.  In fact, the Governor of Tennessee (long a low-tuition state, like much of the South and West – it’s a legacy of 1890s populism) has put such a proposal in his State of the State address. Since US associates degrees tend to draw lower-income students, and lead to less well-paying jobs, it meets the fairness and equity tests.

Something similar wouldn’t make quite as much sense in Canada because more of our college credentials are longer, more specialized, and have high private rates of return; you wouldn’t want to do this with Sheridan’s animation programs, or SAIT’s pipeline technology programs, for instance.  But college ECE or pre-apprenticeship programs?  Free tuition there would be significantly more progressive than, say, grants to university students from families making $160,000.

Worth a conversation at least.

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2 Responses to The Best Argument for Free Tuition

  1. Glenn Keeler says:

    Interesting thinking. My head nearly explodes at the thought of who and how the differentiation between programs would be made, however!

    I do have a small quibble with the compulsory secondary argument. I believe that education is compulsory in Canada until 16 years of age. Depending on the age rules for grade 1 in a particular jurisdiction, that might get you to grade 11, but more often to grade 10. So we have half compulsory secondary education at best.

    There is a tacit understanding that completing high school is “required” which is probably why 90% of 20-24 year-olds have completed high school, but Alberta can give you ample evidence with under 80% high school completion in the 18-19 year-old group that many exercise their “get out of school free” card to join the work force.

    So if secondary education is not really compulsory, does that let the air out of the discussion? I don’t think so. But it might add some energy to the thought of making some form of high school completion mandatory if the public benefit of education is shifting from secondary completion to post-secondary completion.

  2. Danilo Costa says:

    I agree with you and believe this is the best solution: charge tuiton fees of those who have the condition to pay them, and provide assistance for those who have not.
    I would like to see this idea being shared by other leaders as well.

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