Totally free public higher education?


Tuition at the University of Washington has more than doubled in the last 10 years, even when adjusted for inflation

Tuition-free postsecondary education may seem like a stretch in our current economic climate, but it is not impossible, as Jordan Weissman describes in an interesting thought experiment over at the Atlantic. More people need to go to college than ever before in order to have a shot at a living wage. Why not make college free if it’s as necessary as elementary and high school, especially if we could use existing federal funds to do it?

Weissman argues that we could use existing federal financial aid to cover the costs of all students in public colleges if we eliminated federal financial aid to students in private college. Using just tax breaks and grant funds, which total about $77 billion a year, the federal government could eliminate tuition at public colleges, like the University of Washington. Students at private colleges, like Seattle University, would lose access to programs like the Pell Grant, but they would still have access to federal student loans.

The idea is fascinating, although the author’s feasibility arguments are a bit off. For example, he neglects to include lawmakers’ alma maters in his caveats about how politically infeasible the transition really would be. It turns out, less than half of the members of Congress attended a private college. While private colleges no doubt have many powerful lobbyists working for them and among their alumni, public colleges are well-represented.

In addition, he likely overestimates the number of high income students who would attend the “public option” even if it were free. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, private elementary and secondary schools enroll about 9% of all students, while private colleges and universities enroll about 18% of all postsecondary students. While some students might opt for the less expensive option, high income students are not as price sensitive as low income students, and they may well prefer the prestige of a prestigious private institution. Additionally, some of those in private institutions may be international students, who are not currently eligible for federal financial aid, and thus would be unlikely to be covered by the private option.

While it seems unlikely that Washington state will adopt the Finnish model of free postsecondary education anytime soon, we could eliminate the barrier of tuition fees using the Pay It Forward model. Cost shouldn’t be the deciding factor in whether students are able to go to college. Something’s gotta give because, as Weissman writes, “What we’re doing now is crazy.”

By EOI Intern Audrey Peek

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