Is Free Higher Education Part of the Solution?

By Fichtenbaum, Rudy H. | Academe, September/October 2016 | Go to article overview

Is Free Higher Education Part of the Solution?


Fichtenbaum, Rudy H., Academe


CHRONICLE OF HIGHER EDUCATION writers Scott Carlson and Beckie Supiano, in their recent article "How Clinton's 'Free College' Could Cause a Cascade of Problems," critique Hillary Clinton's "New College Compact," a proposal developed in response to Bernie Sanders's free-college plan. Clinton's proposal would cover the cost of tuition at public institutions for families making up to $125,000.

Carlson and Supiano claim that the plan has no chance of passage because they assume Republicans will maintain control of the House after the November election. However, they believe the popularity of the plan among young people will likely spur continuing calls for tuition-free public higher education.

Their critique centers on the effects of "free tuition" on private institutions. They recognize, of course, that elite private institutions with substantial endowments will continue to exist, but they worry about small private institutions whose budgets depend on tuition. Facing a choice between "free tuition" at public institutions and tuition at a private institution, a substantial number of students, they believe, will opt to attend public institutions, and this will have dire consequences for many private tuition-dependent institutions.

They imply that many small colleges would close, depriving some communities of a major source of employment. They also observe that many small private colleges provide not only significant employment but also cultural amenities such as theater, musical performances, and radio stations as well as guest lectures that are open to the public.

Moreover, Carlson and Supiano argue that "free tuition" would have deleterious effects on public flagship institutions, noting that flagships are more likely to enroll affluent students and have little incentive to expand enrollments. Thus, they argue that poor students would be forced to attend "lower-tier" public colleges, which would exacerbate inequality.

The article ends without offering any alternative proposals to deal with the mounting debt crisis faced by millions of students and their families.

In making their argument, Carlson and Supiano disregard some key facts. Changing demographics and rising student debt have forced many small private institutions to curtail tuition increases while raising tuition discounts, all in the face of declining enrollment. Clearly, a model built on ever-growing discount rates and declining net tuition is not sustainable. …

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