As many of you know, I’ve been around the block a few times around the issue of “free tuition” (see here here here and here for a few examples if you’re interested/have forgotten/find these pieces amusing). But one thing that I’ve found fascinating about the developing American discourse on free tuition is how very different it is from that of other countries. I’ve written before about how the presence of private universities changes the nature of the debate in the US, but the actual rationale for universality is different as well.
Let me explain.
In most parts of the world, the argument against tuition fees is that they deter participation. This is, of course, mostly nonsense, at least if the country in question has a functioning student assistance system. Except where tuition is increasing by literally thousands of dollars at a time, the demonstrated effects of tuition increase are negligible to non-existent, because student aid, you know, works. And, more to the point, in most cases extra fees get plowed back into the institutions themselves, so arguably fees increase participation by expanding the number of places available. This is most obviously true in Asian countries like Korea where 80% of students are at private universities. Literally, if tuition fees did not exist, there would be no places for all these students.
There’s a secondary argument about fees and inequality. This takes two forms. The first is that they selectively deter poorer students. This is not very convincing because a) in most countries student aid is sufficient to compensate and b) the most important barriers to higher education are non-financial. As a result, by most measures students from non-traditional backgrounds are no more likely to end up in higher education in free tuition countries than in ones with fees.
The second part of the argument is that fees – and related interest costs on loans, where these exist – actually serve to impoverish students from poorer backgrounds and thus perpetuate inequality: if only we reduced fees, then there would be greater equality because poor students would be $X better off. This is plain ridiculous, because more affluent students would also be $X better off, thus reducing inequality not one jot. If you think richer parents won’t indulge in intergenerational wealth transfers just because tuition is free, you’re deluded.
There’s a third broad argument out there as well, though you tend not to see it in North America. In some part of the world – Chile is a notable example here – the argument about free fees has nothing to do with access at all; rather it is about the role of the market. In some people’s minds, if funding comes entirely from government, then it is the public and not the market which will decided what education is and how it should be delivered. Now, in practice I think a lot of people mean “ensconced academics” rather than “the public” when they say this, and I think they’re taking the benevolence of elected governments for granted when saying this, but whatever. It’s an argument.
But the longer I listen to American arguments around free tuition (particularly but not exclusively from Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of the excellent book Paying the Price, which I reviewed back here), the more convinced I am that it is rooted in quite a different set of concerns. Superficially, it’s based in the second set of arguments about how fees deter poor students. But it starts from a completely different set of premises around student aid. Unlike (say) the Canadian free-tuition types, American free-tuition types actually accept the notion that student aid can, in theory, offset the problems created by tuition. Their argument is rather a political one: they do not believe the political will exists to support need-based/means-tested aid on the necessary scale and only by extending benefits to all via free tuition will one get the necessary buy-in. Proponents of this view like to use the phrase “programs for the poor are poor programs”. In effect, the only way to get money for the needy is to give it to the rich as well. And if it takes a subsidy which is net-regressive to do it, so be it.
This is a very different kind of argument from the one we are used to up here, and it’s one that’s kind of hard to argue with from outside the country. Obviously, for targeted means-tested aid to work, there does need to be a political consensus that net transfers from rich to poor are a Good Thing. Maybe in the US no such consensus exists, I don’t know; I’m not an American and I can’t really say. I’m not convinced universalism is any more sell-able in the US than means-testing, but then again I also thought Clinton would carry Michigan and Pennsylvania so perhaps I am not the best judge.
But what I do know is that in Canada this argument makes no sense. We do have a consensus or redistributive targetting. That’s how the federal government and the governments of Ontario and New Brunswick got rid of education tax credits and put the proceeds into an expanded need-based grant programs. We can make good, durable programs for the poor and that’s to our credit.
The American argument on free tuition, then, is actually one born of despair over the very specific political conditions which exist in the US which prevent them from adopting solutions like Canada’s. It might make political if not economic sense in the US and for that matter some other countries as well. But it’s not applicable everywhere and certainly not chez nous.