From the President: Is Free Higher Education Part of the Solution?

By Rudy H. Fichtenbaum

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. Right now many tuition-driven private institutions are in a race to see who can hold out long enough to pick up students from failed institutions. While Carlson and Supiano are correct that “free tuition” would put additional pressure on private tuition-driven institutions and shift enrollment to regional public institutions, these public colleges and universities do not have the capacity to absorb large numbers of new students without an influx of resources.

Thus, any plan for “free tuition” will also have to include new resources for public institutions. That is precisely why Bernie Sanders called for a financial transactions tax to fund his proposal. With the additional resources such a tax would provide, regional public institutions would be able to hire more fulltime tenure-track faculty and other academic professionals who serve the needs of students. Many of these individuals could come from the ranks of those currently teaching and working at smaller private institutions. In some cases, it would be possible for public institutions to absorb smaller private institutions that cannot survive.

But arguing against tuition-free higher education because it might put some smaller private institutions out of business is tantamount to arguing against funding public K–12 schools because doing so might put private schools out of business. Before the existence of public schools, education was truly for the elite. Free public education increased the proportion of the population that could receive an education.

Education is a public good. It is a right, not just a privilege for those who can pay. Just as private schools exist in the K–12 world, they will continue to exist in higher education. Tuition-free public higher education should expand access to higher education as well as reduce the burden of debt on a new generation of college students.

No one is arguing that tuition-free higher education is a panacea that will solve problems such as socioeconomic stratification and the stratification of higher education. The existence of public K–12 education did not eliminate inequality, and we all understand the inequality that exists even within the sphere of public education. Nevertheless, public education was a step forward, and it expanded educational opportunity. Tuition-free higher education would do the same.