Tuition Free Higher Education

Politicians across the political spectrum are grappling with the public outcry over skyrocketing tuition increases at American colleges and universities—especially our public institutions. In the current presidential election cycle, the most substantive proposals have come from the Democratic candidates. Hillary Clinton has offered a proposal for debt-free higher education, insisting that students should work at least a certain number of hours per week to pay for their education. Bernie Sanders has offered a proposal for tuition-free higher education, insisting that a tax on Wall Street speculation could be used to cover tuition for all students.

The immediate reaction of most educators will probably be to support one or both of these Democratic proposals. As educators, we know the challenges that our students face in working 40 hours a week or more to pay for their tuition, the anxiety they have in facing tens of thousands of dollars of debt, and how these economic realities impinge on their ability to get the most out of their educational experiences. However, once you dig a little deeper into the issue, you find that there is a lot more complexity to it. You also find that the kinds of conversations we need to be having about these issues simply are not taking place in our public discourse.

At this year’s annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges & Universities, Dr. D. Gregory Sapp (Stetson University and SVHE Board Member) and I facilitated a special seminar session. This session was the third in as many years, and focused on the question of tuition-free higher education. The participants included faculty from a wide range of disciplines and from colleges as well as universities. Participants were asked to read a selection of articles on the various issues involved before participating in the session:

In addition, when participants entered the room, they were given the following set of questions to consider before the discussion started:

Questions of Benefit

  • Is there moral value in providing a tuition-free college education to all qualified citizens of the United States? If so, what is that value?
  • Should everyone have a liberal arts education? Why or why not? Are there ways of imagining such an education other than the traditional four-year college experience?
  • What public goods are served by making a college education available and accessible to all citizens?

Questions of Challenge

  • Is there a public benefit of tuition-free higher education such that everyone should be expected to support this program with tax dollars even if he or she will not receive a direct benefit from the program?
  • Should all students at public institutions receive a liberal arts education, or should we provide vocational or pre-professional education to those who are not capable of a completing a liberal arts program or who choose otherwise?
  • Would tuition-free higher education necessitate a new system of categorization or ranking of high school students to determine which ones could go to which colleges and universities?
  • How would the implementation of tuition-free public higher education affect private higher education?
  • Is our current model of public primary and secondary education an appropriate model for what tuition-free higher education would look like? If not, why not, and if so, what can we learn from our current system of public education?
  • Given the current inequities in our public primary and secondary education systems, would it be better to focus on strengthening those systems before attempting to implement tuition-free higher education for all? If we do not address current public school inequities, will we really benefit from providing tuition-free higher education?
  • Is it possible that tuition-free higher education would exacerbate existing economic inequalities in the United States? Might it actually work against the value of equity?

Although the conversation was wide-ranging, there were certain common concerns and reactions that emerged:

  • Concerns about who is “qualified” for college and what “qualified” even means: Even if the public is willing to pay for everyone to go to college, should everyone go to college? Are some students just not qualified to attend college? And what does “qualified” mean here, especially given the disparity in quality in our K-12 educational systems?
  • Concerns that free tuition would be a benefit primarily for people higher on the socio-economic ladder: Statistics show a huge disparity in college diplomas between people in the upper income brackets and those in lower income brackets. Tuition-free higher education then would be an entitlement mainly for those who already have the income to pay for higher education. If nothing else, there was a strong desire—at minimum—to use a means-testing process in order to provide help to those students who most need it.
  • Concerns that tuition-free higher education would exacerbate wealth inequality in the United States: Given the disparity in college achievement already, would not tuition-free higher education simply exacerbate wealth inequality in the country? Certainly we can imagine a larger number of working poor and poor students attending college, but how much larger is unclear.
  • Desire to increase affordable access to higher education, including alleviating the student debt crisis: There was a widespread consensus that our country needs to increase affordable access to higher education. Many of the participants recounted stories of students who could not attend college because of cost or students who worked so much during the week that they could not take advantage of the educational opportunities for which they were working. There also seemed to be a consensus that saddling students with excessive debt was unethical.
  • Desire to increase the proportion of the population that would benefit from a liberal arts education: The AAC&U meeting always includes a number of talks championing the value of a liberal arts education. If we are convinced of that value, then, should not everyone have a liberal arts education? In other words, should some form of liberal arts education be universal? If so, does that mean that we then would require it—especially in the context of a four-year degree? One participant suggested that maybe there could be a required post-secondary year or two for students to enrich their lives with a liberal arts education. The group reached no conclusion on these questions, but clearly there is a tension between the value we place on a liberal arts education and how we deliver (or even require) it for the general population.
  • Are we having the wrong conversation? Given the terrible disparities we have between K-12 school systems, many people felt that we needed to devote more of our energy and resources toward improving all those systems. The goal then would be to provide all students with the kind of K-12 education that will prepare them for baccalaureate work. There remained the desire to address college affordability and access, but clearly we need to do more as a nation to provide a better education for all students from age 4 to 24.

As we discovered in previous years, participants in these SVHE seminars love to explore the moral values intrinsic to the work of higher education. We do not expect to come up with the answers to these difficult problems. Nevertheless, by providing a venue for conversation about the possible impacts of tuition-free higher education and higher education’s relationship with K-12 education, SVHE is providing a valuable service to educators.


By Eric Bain-Selbo
Eric is the Department Head of Philosophy and Religion at Western Kentucky University and Executive Director of the Society for Values in Higher Education<on.


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One Response to Tuition Free Higher Education

  1. F. Tolhurst says:

    Eric Bain-Selbo raises a fundamental question for educators in the U.S.: is it necessary that most Americans earn a bachelor’s degree in order to get an entry-level job? If we were to transform secondary education so that students acquired key academic skills, colleges and universities could shift their focus away from preparing students to do university-level academic work.

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