Office of Planning and Budgeting

Critique of “For Public College, the Best Tuition Is No Tuition”

In “For Public College, the Best Tuition Is No Tuition,” a recent opinion piece published by The Chronicle, the author describes the merits of Finland’s no-tuition education system. In Finland, “all education became public and free” during the 1960s as part of a multipronged strategy to reform and improve education. The other prongs of the strategy involved strengthening the country’s basic education by providing teachers with better pay and training, ensuring that students have individual attention at a young age, and by making education more interactive and experience-based. Forty years later, the country ranks 1st in Pearson’s Global Index of Cognitive Skills and Educational Attainment, which is based on results from a variety of international tests of cognitive skills as well as measures of literacy and high school graduation rates. The US ranked 17th. Though the accolades go to Finland’s basic education system, the author concludes that the US should model its higher education system after Finland’s. However, a higher percentage of the US’s population has attained tertiary education (42 percent, ranked 5th, versus 39 percent in Finland, ranked 9th) and a higher percentage has entered into higher education (72 percent, ranked 8th, versus 68 percent in Finland, ranked 13th).

Even if the US should model its higher ed system after Finland’s, the no-tuition strategy is not nearly as feasible as the author suggests. To determine whether Finland’s approach would be “affordable” for the US, the author multiplies the number of US public students in 2008-09 by the average cost of public tuition, room, and board in 2009-10. By his calculations, the program would cost $130 billion annually which, he notes, is more or less equivalent to what the federal government spent on Pell grants and student loans in 2010 ($134 billion). His approach, however, has some serious flaws:

  • First, what he is analyzing here is the cost of all public education becoming free, not all education becoming public and free, which is Finland’s model. It is unclear whether the author accidentally left out private non-profits and for-profits—which would be converted to public institutions and made free under Finland’s model.  But if the other sectors are added into the equation, the program costs increase significantly.
  • Second, undergraduate tuition and fees have increased since 2008-09. Between 2009-10 and 2012-13, adjusting for inflation, undergraduate tuition and fees increased by about 5 percent per year at public institutions and by an average of 2 percent per year at private non-profits. During that the same time, federal spending on Pell grants and undergraduate financial aid remained relatively stable after adjusting for inflation, meaning the costs would not be nearly as interchangeable as the author suggests.
  • Lastly, completely eliminating the price of tuition would stimulate demand, which would increase enrollment at public institutions and, thus, the cost to taxpayers. Not only would there be a per-student cost (tuition, room, board, etc.) for each additional student, more students would also require more buildings, classrooms, labs, housing and other capital investments.

Another significant feature inherent in Finland’s system that isn’t contemplated by the author is Finland’s use of a barrier to entry. Finland has limited enrollment spaces and, thus, requires that students pass certain standardized tests at specified levels, depending on the program. This works well in Finland due to their exceptional K-12 system, which ensures that all students are thoroughly prepared for college regardless of personal income or community wealth. The same cannot necessarily be said about our basic education system in the US. Thus, it isn’t clear whether a standardized test could serve as a barrier to entry without significantly and profoundly harming less prepared students.

We’re trying to create a system in which students of all backgrounds and privileges have access to higher education, but substituting price for a proxy barrier like college preparedness may not get us very far. College preparedness would be a preferable barrier in that naturally-talented low-income students would have a better chance of attending college than they currently do; but what would happen to the students who don’t have the resources they need to succeed? Would they be denied access to higher education?

There are costs and tradeoffs associated with every higher education system and reform plan, free tuition is no exception. Free tuition may be a viable option, but it’s not a silver bullet.

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