Free Tuition: A Great Idea, right? Right?

There has been a lot of discussion recently about several free tuition programs that are under consideration. Because I frequently point out that we’re not sending enough poor kids to college in this country, you’d think I’d be all gaga about the possibility.  You would be wrong.

This is because of one simple reason: Free tuition would almost certainly limit poor students’ access to bachelor’s degree attainment.

In addition, most students from very-low income families can already go to college for free, or close to it.  In Illinois, by way of example, families with incomes under $50,000 who qualify for both Pell and MAP can cover direct costs (tuition, fees and books) with cash back for personal expenses at the community college in my home district. (This cash, of course, does not cover foregone earnings and the opportunity cost of it.)  It would also cover a considerable percentage of the bill at the state flagship here.  And I’d agree that those two sources should cover more.

The problem is not the idea: The problem is how it plays out.

First, lots of these programs are “last dollar” awards; that is, they’re offered only after all sources of state and federal government money are exhausted by the student.  This can actually make “free” a bad deal for students compared to the current method.

But more important, lots of economists have researched and written about “Free.”  It causes humans to react irrationally, at least based on an economist’s definition of rational.  It creates want in addition to demand (which is want backed up by the ability to pay.)  It creates want among people who otherwise wouldn’t purchase it: Even those who light their cigars with $100 bills (I’ve never really seen anyone do this, of course, but it’s still a nice metaphor.)  At Union Station in Chicago, I’ve seen lawyers in  $2000 suits line up for a “free” sample they wouldn’t pay one penny for.

If you want to see how “Free” has played out in Georgia, you can find lots of evidence to suggest that wealthy students benefit from free way more than poor students do.  Here. Here. And here. Since wealthy people vote more often, free tuition for the wealthy seems like a good idea to remain in office.

If the colleges offer “Free” to everyone who wants it, we have no problem.  But, of course, supply of anything is not unlimited; it’s constrained by lots of things at universities: Campus capacity, faculty teaching loads, and the government’s lack of willingness to give away too much of anything.

So what happens if lots of people line up for “Free?”  The thing being offered gets rationed, of course.  In a university, this is often viewed as a good thing: We just call it “increasingly selectivity.”  And when colleges and universities go into rationing mode, they start looking for rational ways to ration it.  From my previous post about why there is no such thing as need-blind admissions, look at the things that go into admissions decisions at institutions that consider themselves at least moderately selective:

Admissions Factor Wealthier Students and/or from Wealthier Schools Poorer Students and/or from Poorer Schools Advantage
Test Scores Wealthier students come from schools with access to expensive test-prep and can take the tests multiple time May not know how tests work, what the differences  Wealthy students
Advanced Courses/Rigor Wealthier students come from private schools or higher-income public schools with greater access to AP, Honors, IB and other courses  Likely to come from schools with fewer options for advanced courses; especially if prerequisites require planning from freshman year Wealthy students
Essays Essays may be written, edited, groomed, and polished, sometimes over a year’s time Unless the importance of the essay is clearly understood, there may be little or no editing or reviewing by adults Wealthy students
Letters of Recommendation Counselors and teachers are expected to write letters designed to give the student every advantage in the process Letters may be written by counselors or teachers who do not understand the game, or may not even know the student well Wealthy students
Activities Resumes are carefully designed to highlight leadership, volunteer activities, and activities tied to school and campus culture More likely to include jobs that detract from school activity options, but may be financially necessary  Wealthy students
Legacy Status More likely to have college-educated parents Less likely to have college educated parents Wealthy students
Diversity Less likely to be from an underrepresented group More likely to be from an underrepresented group Poorer students

And, as I’ve written before, when a public or private university raises the threshold on something like SAT Scores for admission (whether consciously or unconsciously,) poor kids get screwed.  They get screwed because when you’re selecting students, you choose the ones who have the educational benefits of wealth.

So, here’s the deal: If public universities won’t use “Free” as a mechanism to keep out the very students whom “Free” should help, I’m all for it.  I just don’t see that it’s very likely to play out that way.


1 reply

  1. The inferences regarding Georgia’s Hope and Miller awards indirectly points to the larger issue of education deflation. At the risk of sounding like Rick Santorum, not every United States citizen needs to go to college at all, let alone an institution such as Georgia Tech. For many, a technical school or community college would be just fine. Indeed, many contemporary institutions of higher learning have simply changed their names from XYZ Community College to The University of XYZ, while increasing tuition and debt by 400%. Nearly 20 years ago, I taught a 200 level class at a 150 year old 4 year college in NYC. Perhaps 4 of 40 students should have been in a 4 year college, yet the other 36 came anyway, largely do to grants and subsidies, oblivious to the fact that they needed to actually gain an education during their 4 years. In Georgia, the misguided legislature made the same mistake. Any student – keep in mind that coincidental to the articles cited, hundreds of Georgia teachers were fired for cheating on tests on behalf of their students – with a 3.3 GPA got a free ride to college. Factor in Pell Grants and these kids got a 4 year subsidized vacation if they did not incur housing expense. The addition of a huge population of students who had no business taking the money in the first place makes the percentage of Metro Atlanta students seem artifically skewed. Eliminate that segment of the population, and the awards to the 6 mentioned counties virtually matches those counties’ representation in the state population.


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