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From the Archives: Why College Probably Shouldn’t Be Free

[Note: Much of this analysis was written around the time of the 2012 Quebec Student Protests, but remains relevant given the Sanders campaign’s popular free-college-for-all platform in the ongoing US presidential election.]

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 45 years between 1967 and 2012, 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

Dan

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.

6 Comments

  1. February 13, 2016 at 12:00 pm —

    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

    I know this argument, commonly known as “why should the nurse (an apprenticeship in Germany) pay for the doctor’s kid’s university degree” and there are some reasons why I think it’s wrong:

    1.) The population in general benefits from a well educated populace. This is a social task, not an individual endeavour.

    2.) This ignores a different angle which is parents vs childfree people. I think we can agree that as a society we need kids, we need well educated kids. While becoming a parent should always be an individual choice and while I applaud everybody who takes a good look at themselves and decides against parenting, we still need kids. Not every individual but society as a whole. Parents already take up great responsibility and serious costs by raising their children. Now university puts more financial burdens on them while society as a whole benefits, regardless of whether you have kids or not. That’s unfair as well, isn’t it?

    3.) Parents can be assholes. That’s why I am in favour of completely tax based funding of students. Not only college fees, but also living expenses. Germany does have financial aids/loans available based on parental income (with fucking low thresholds). This means that all students who are not dirt poor depend on their parents’ support*. This support will often be conditional. Sure, you can sue your parents because you’re entitled to their support, but tell me, how many 18 year olds will take their parents to court so they can study design instead of law because daddy wants them to take over his law firm?

    You are of course right that nothing at college/university level improves access to children from disadvantaged backgrounds who don’t make it to college entry level at all, but that’s a different topic.

     

    *My in laws are almost dirt poor. They would still have had to pay their son around 400€ a month as calculated by the Students Aid Office. Did I mention that my dad in law was a plumber while my mum in law was fighting cancer at that time? There were months we paid their grocery bill…

    • February 13, 2016 at 10:36 pm —

      Let me respond to these things in order:

      1) This is true to an extent, but I think there is probably a point at which increased education offers diminishing returns for society at large. As I’ve written elsewhere and often: not everyone needs to go to university, and not everyone should. We have a free, compulsory education system in most countries that should suffice for the majority of the populace, because that exactly is what free, compulsory education is supposed to do.

      2) I am not arguing for students or parents to cover 100% of the financial burden of their post-secondary education, but I do think there are good reasons for students to be financially invested in the process if they can be, not least because it creates pressure for them both to take their studies seriously and to graduate on time. Part of the Cult of College (of which I am critical) also emphasizes the higher lifetime wages earned by graduates, which seems another reason for them to be willing to invest some amount of money if they can afford to.

      3) The study found Germany’s higher education system to be relatively inaccessible for the very reason that, despite low (or “free”) tuition, there was not enough access to financial aid or loans to cover students’ living expenses. That is why I think it is a better and vastly more efficient use of funds to create very generous financial aid for students who need it rather than to eliminate tuition across the board and give wealthy students a free ride.

  2. February 14, 2016 at 4:18 am —

    Hehe, I’ll play right back

    1) I agree, not everybody needs to go to college. Germany, for example, has a very good vocational training system, which also means that a bachelor’s degree is pretty worthless in and on itself. We only switched to the bachelor/master system a few years ago.

    2.)There are other ways to make sure that students are invested. It used to be that you could stay a student forever while not actually studying. Universities weren’t too sorry if you did. You bolstered their numbers = funding and you didn’t take up resources. Nowadays you have to get a certain amount of Credit Points over a certain time or you get kicked out. That’s a more immediate consequence than debt that affects you in 10 years time.

    3)

     higher lifetime wages earned by graduates, which seems another reason for them to be willing to invest some amount of money if they can afford to.

    This is exactly why I think it’s a problem: you need to have money in order to later earn money. Better tax the later earnings to finance college for everybody. That’s also fairer on the different earnings of different graduates. Not every degree will guarantee you riches. It means that students from financially weak backgrounds have to choose subjects that are more likely to guarantee higher earnings.

    4.)

     The study found Germany’s higher education system to be relatively inaccessible for the very reason that, despite low (or “free”) tuition, there was not enough access to financial aid or loans to cover students’ living expenses. That is why I think it is a better and vastly more efficient use of funds to create very generous financial aid for students who need it rather than to eliminate tuition across the board and give wealthy students a free ride.

    I agree that this is a problem, though in Germany the problems start way earlier with a stratified scholl system where your success depends mainly on your social background. And then you have college expenses vs. getting paid vocational training, which further pushes poor students away from college.

    But you haven’t addressed the point of parents effectively owning their children if they cannot get financial help.

    5.) Last but not least: I get the “wealthy people should carry a greater burden than poor people”. I absolutely agree. But why should this particular burden only apply to parents? Parents already have invested a lot of time and money in their children. Not only in forms of direct payment, but also in terms of wages they didn’t earn. Sure, if we’re talking about a teacher married to a technician they make enough to live comfortably with two kids. But they’d be much wealthier if they didn’t have any kids. Now you look at them and say “It’s totally OK if they put up another 150.000 bucks over the next 5-10 years to send the kids to college. We’ll even give them a tax break of, say, 500 bucks?”

    Next to them is a similar couple with no kids. They are already much wealthier and now they get an additional 150k in expenses saved.

    • February 15, 2016 at 2:45 am —

      3) Not every degree has to grant you riches for students to share in the expense of their education. (Edit: and I should say, the supposed bump in income does not depend on a “profitable” degree, but merely having one). I’m not in favour of a system where most people pay lots of money. But I do think it’s reasonable for students/parents to pay some money if they have the resources to do so.

      4) If the parents are that awful then there are already ways for students to get around them (basically making a legal claim of financial independence that entitles them to be viewed in terms of their own assets and not their parents). In the vast majority of cases, though, this wouldn’t be necessary.

      5) Well, yes. Parents are generally expected to shoulder the burden of raising the children they have. But you’re still treating the system I’m proposing as if it’s making everyone pay exorbitant tuition fees, which it is not. When I say lots of generous aid that is what I mean. I still think the wealthiest families should be able to afford a few thousand dollars in tuition payments every year. The state is still paying for most of the system here, but what it isn’t doing is giving very wealthy families a free ride, but rather using the money it can get from them so there is more to give to poorer students.

      • February 15, 2016 at 8:28 am —

        4) If the parents are that awful then there are already ways for students to get around them (basically making a legal claim of financial independence that entitles them to be viewed in terms of their own assets and not their parents). In the vast majority of cases, though, this wouldn’t be necessary.

        That depends on the country. In Germany you’d have to sue for the funds. And I don’t think you are clear on what a huge demand you’re making on somebody who is basically still a kid: cut all ties with your family. Many students carefully have to balance these things.

        Well, yes. Parents are generally expected to shoulder the burden of raising the children they have. But you’re still treating the system I’m proposing as if it’s making everyone pay exorbitant tuition fees, which it is not. 

        See, this is a premise I don’t share, especially when it comes to education, because this reinforces the dynamics by which children of poor parents grow up to become poor adults and children of wealthy parents grow up to become wealthy adults.Any education system that aspires to be fair needs to work actively against those dynamics.

        I know, many people act as if having children is the same as having a pet. They can all ask their dog to provide medical treatment and do maintenance when they’Re 80…

        Besides, how is it fair on parents that depending on whether their kid goes to college they have to share a huge additional burden the parents of a kid who doesn’t don’t have to?

        And yes, your system would add a significant burden, especially since it does nothing to relief housing and general living expenses. It is acting as if parents of students who are NOT getting financial aid aren’t already paying significant sums.

         

        • February 15, 2016 at 10:42 am —

          And yes, your system would add a significant burden, especially since it does nothing to relief housing and general living expenses.

          No, again, that is part of the generous aid I advocate for those who need it, considering I specifically call this out as a reason free tuition doesn’t cut it as a policy. I think you want what I’m proposing to be significantly more regressive than it actually is simply because I’m proposing that the wealthy pay in through tuition and not only through taxes. But the benefits of education are shared between society and the individual, and when possible it seems fair that the individual pay some part of those costs when possible in order to enable society to pick up more of the costs for those who can’t.

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