Critical ThinkingHigher Education

Why making tuition free isn’t a good idea

[Note: I originally published much of this analysis on another now-defunct blog during the 2012 Quebec Student Protests, but thought it relevant in light of our recent discussion of tuition and government funding.]

I think the system of higher education in Quebec provides a useful and interesting comparison to the situation in the US, and a good example of why making tuition free really wouldn’t solve the right problems, or at least why it is about the least efficient way to go about solving them. For those unfamiliar with Quebec in general or with the tuition hikes and student protests in 2012, I will provide a brief summary of the circumstances that led to the initial disagreement between the student protestors and the government.

Since the Quiet Revolution, the province of Quebec has more or less committed to a European model of higher education funding that placed a great emphasis on keeping tuition rates low to ensure accessibility to all citizens. To this end, tuition rates have been subject to government-mandated freezes for 31 of the last 45 years, with the understanding that funding shortfalls resulting from the freezes would be be compensated for with increased government expenditures. The net effect of this policy as of 2012, as one can easily see in the graph on the linked page, was to keep tuition rates substantially below the 1968 rate in inflation-adjusted dollars. Even the period from 1989 to 1994, during which the freeze was suspended and the tuition rate nearly tripled, did not increase fees beyond approximately 70% of what students paid forty years ago.

The freeze was suspended again in 2007, and in the following years tuition increased at approximately 5% per annum. In the face of large and continuing deficits in the system, however, in 2012 the government proposed an increase of approximately 80% spread over five years, in order to bring tuition levels back to where they were in 1968. This would have translated to an increase of $325/year to the 2012 rate of $2168, to a total of almost $3800 per year for Quebec residents by 2018. No, that is not missing a digit.

Student groups objected to the proposed increase (and eventually prevailed thanks to an election that had dire consequences for the university system). Their objections were grounded in two separate claims. First, they argued that an increase of $1625 in the annual fee ($4875 total over a standard 3-year bachelor’s degree programme) constitutes a significant barrier to the accessibility of higher education for students from less affluent backgrounds. Second, they argued that higher education is a human right and a public good necessary to the health and vitality of a Western democracy, and as such it is the government’s duty to provide it to citizens free of charge.

The first of these arguments is an empirical one; we should be able to evaluate this claim based on available evidence in order to determine its truth and relevance to debates over accessibility. The second of these claims is an ideological one, and thus has to be evaluated on different terms–namely an exploration of its premises (both explicit and implicit) and a thorough evaluation of the effects of such a system in light of those premises and in comparison to alternate models. I will only address the first of these issues in this post. Hopefully I’ll be able to return to this topic soon to discuss the second, but in the meantime I will try to refrain from any normative judgements regarding who should be footing the bill for higher education, but only what effect tuition rates have on educational accessibility and attainment.

What do we mean by “accessibility”?

To determine what tuition rates mean in terms of accessibility, we first have to come to a reasonable definition of what “accessible” means in the context of higher education. To define it simply as the price point is begging the question: it creates a tautology where inaccessibility is defined as increased price, which ultimately makes statements about accessibility meaningless in any way that is distinct from “inexpensive.” This is not to say that price is not a factor in accessibility–it obviously must be–but it cannot be the only factor, and for some range of possible fees it may not even be the largest factor.

In the interest of finding a broader definition of accessibility, then, it might be useful to consider what barriers exist to accessing higher education. These barriers can be financial, cultural, or academic in nature:

Financial barriers: tuition, ancillary fees, application fees, textbooks, living expenses, transportation expenses

Cultural barriers: family attitudes, local or cultural/religious attitudes, desired lifestyle/career interests

Academic barriers: poor grades, incomplete secondary education, inadequate schools

Now, our first decision has to be which of these barriers do we decide to include under the banner of “accessibility,” and of those we choose, how heavily they ought to be weighted. This is not a decision that can be made without some a priori assumptions about the nature of higher education and whom it should be serving. These are particularly thorny assumptions because they can involve making a normative judgement about what classes of people should be attending university (and therefore also tacitly branding their not going to university as a kind of failure). Let’s, however, make this minimal assumption in the name of building a definition:

All students who satisfy certain academic requirements ought to be able to attend university should they choose to do so.

Note that this already sidesteps a lot of major barriers to higher education, notably those that affect poor or otherwise marginalized people in favour of mainstream working- and middle-class interests. No reduction in tuition will make university more accessible to a young girl who has been subjected to years of social and cultural pressure from her fundamentalist parents, or to a boy who dropped out of secondary school in order to get a job and help his family get by. This is an important point, and one we ought not to forget.

Now, even assuming the student is in a position to have the choice to go to university, some cultural barriers may remain. A student’s family, for example, might consider the pursuit of higher education to be frivolous and encourage the student to pursue a more ‘practical’ path of directly entering the workforce or achieving a technical certification (this is distinct from a case in which a student comes to this decision without familial pressure). While mainstream culture does (perhaps disproportionally) value higher education, this is more a reflected value of middle- and upper-class culture makers than it is a cultural universal. The fact remains that the biggest single predictor of whether or not a student will attend university is whether or not their parents attended university. Indeed, the effect is so big that it makes nearly every other predictor (gender, ethnicity, economic class, mother tongue, etc) into something of a statistical footnote.

It’s important to recognize this factor and to take it into account when considering accessibility. Children of university graduates are not attending university in such great numbers simply because of the (somewhat dubious, in my opinion) economic benefits of higher education. They are attending in great numbers because higher education has become firmly entrenched in their parents’ culture. While this might be considered a positive marker for the value of higher education, it also creates an inelastic demand that will bear higher costs, for good or for ill. In fact, the effect is so strong that overall tuition rates don’t really affect educational attainment all that much (though they certainly do affect loan debt in the US).

What makes education accessible?

It is time now to turn to the economic factors that contribute to the accessibility of an education. To this end the Educational Policy Institute conducted an excellent analysis of available data for sixteen countries, including the major anglophone countries (US, UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand) and much of Continental Europe (France, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Austria). While they did conduct separate analyses for French and Flemish Belgium, they unfortunately did not separate Quebec from the rest of Canada. They do however note that Quebec’s accessibility profile on its own would most closely resemble that of Germany.

What I wish to draw attention to here is less the rankings they award the various participating countries overall than it is the factors they take into account when determining university accessibility. The authors of the study rightly note that both cost of living and the availability of aid (including loans) make an enormous difference in the accessibility of education. Indeed, even countries like Germany with no official tuition in most state universities (though there are other substantial fees) fare only moderately well in terms of accessibility because of their high cost of living and lack of aid programmes. Indeed, in countries where tuition is relatively low, these factors are actually more significant barriers. After all, in such systems students’ expenses do not consist only or even primarily of their tuition bills–students must also have the funds to support themselves while unable to work full-time.

Some, but not all, students are able to offset these costs by living in their family homes during the time they attend university, but for most this is either not feasible (the family does not live close enough) or desirable. If the student cannot afford to live near the university in the first place, the question of tuition is entirely moot. Some countries have addressed this problem by providing cheap (or occasionally free) housing for needy students and even by providing some students with stipends to cover their living expenses while studying. Many countries (or schools) are also able to adjust or entirely waive the tuition fees of those students who cannot afford to pay them. The benefit of need-based programs like these are that they directly target students for whom the costs of education are a significant barrier, rather than attempting to improve access by lowering costs across the board. Keeping overall prices low is a much less efficient use of funding, as this kind of model will necessarily subsidize the upper- and middle-class far more than it helps the genuinely needy, given that these classes currently represent the vast majority of the student population.

A more accessible system, then, would be one that provided generous subsidies to those who could not otherwise afford the opportunity costs of pursuing an education, rather than one that pursued a policy of reduced fees across the board. One could choose to fund this more accessible system in various ways, but perhaps the most obvious starting point would be to take at least partial advantage of the inelastic demand presented by the children of wealthy and middle-class university graduates. A higher maximum tuition price could be reduced in a graduated manner according to income brackets, with those in the bottom income brackets qualifying for waived fees and/or grants and stipends.

Supporters of free tuition would no doubt argue that a system funded completely by taxpayers would already be progressive and thus there would no need to set up a parallel system for tuition fees. The burden of payment would simply be distributed over the lifetime of the graduate according to their eventual earning powers. The problem with this is those who benefit from the system would not bear any more economic responsibility for it than the population at large, which not only strikes me as unfair but also creates a perverse incentive for students to attend university because they are paying for it either way, rather than because they actually want or need to go. Of course I suspect free-tuition supporters would not object to it on these grounds, but that’s a topic for another day.

If the goal truly is to make higher education as economically accessible as possible to all citizens, rather than simply fixated on maintaining subsidies for the middle and upper classes who currently dominate the system (and will continue to do so until more aid is provided), it seems to me that a progressive graduated approach is the answer, or at the very least an approach that includes more grants, stipends, and fee waivers for the students who need it. Keeping tuition low, just by itself, simply won’t cut it. Indeed, there is substantial evidence to indicate that Quebec’s low tuition rates have done little to increase educational attainment: it has the lowest university participation rate in Canada.

Featured image: Flickr user Tax Credits

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Dan has a PhD in historical musicology and has taught music history and theory at a major Canadian university. He mainly studies music from the Italian Renaissance when he's not busy performing stand-up comedy or playing JRPGs with his cat, Roy. He occasionally tweets as @incontrariomotu and blogs about geeky stuff at The Otaku Skeptic. He is also the glorious editor-in-chief of School of Doubt.


  1. January 15, 2014 at 3:44 am —

    A good thing about low tuition (Norway has, nominally, none) is the lack of bureaucracy it requires. A benefit for society, which doesn’t have to pay people to deal with applications and forms, and a benefit for the students, who don’t have to apply, fill in forms, and worry about qualifiying for programs and waivers and aid, that could possibly change at the whim of the politicians.

    The argument that those who benefit from the system should bear the costs is based on a naive expense/income calculation where the only benefit from higher education is the experience of the individual student, and in particular, the increased earning potential of that student. This ignores the benefit to society as a whole from having an educated population and it ignores class differences by treating everyone as isolated individuals. The followup claim that it creates a perverse incentive to go just to get “your money’s worth” completely contradicts the earlier argument that cultural barriers are so dominant tuition reduction is hardly worth the bother. Although it’s true that lower barriers probably lead to some increase in “unnecessary” education, the cultural barriers mean that most of the unnecessary graduates would have become so anyway, but on their parents dimes. Unless funding for higher education is increased due to increased demand (to some extent that is what happens in Norway) academic barriers increases, and some of the children of the educated class end up paying for their, potentially unnecessary, education at private universities, which is hardly a problem for society.

    And of course, in the end the deciding factor in Norway is the ideological one, society should seek to educate those most suited, no matter the economic status of their parents.

    • January 15, 2014 at 6:36 pm —

      All I can say (teaching in a system where tuition is very cheap but having been through one where it is not) is that cheap of free tuition can engender negative attitudes, in the sense that students value their educational experience less when they have no stake in it. When the costs are low, there is less incentive not to dick around or take things for granted. A higher sticker price (but with aid that in many cases reduces net cost to zero) has a different effect psychologically. Free tuition also means there must be the political will to keep up funding. I am glad this exists in Norway but it doesn’t really exist in Quebec, and we know it wouldn’t exist in most of the US. It also puts higher education on the chopping block during economic downturns, which can really screw up the system since it relies on so much long-term planning and investment. In the worst case you end up with a system where students stay enrolled part-time for decades until they finally pass the right number of exams to get a degree, and the actual institutions consist of little more than some empty rooms where few people bother showing up for class at all, since they can always take the exam again if they fail. I have seen this kind of system and it isn’t pretty.

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