With about a year before the 2020 presidential election, several Democratic candidates are building their campaigns on big promises, one of those being free tuition for public colleges and universities.
Some argue this promise may bring unexpected consequences, such as the downfall of private colleges in the United States. With free tuition at public colleges, it could potentially affect enrollment numbers at private, liberal arts schools like Westminster College.
“Boy, that would really hurt Westminster,” said Cid Siedelman, a distinguished service professor of economics. “There are many private institutions across the country that are already under significant financial duress.”
However, some argue that free college would actually benefit Westminster, increasing enrollment despite the cost.
Free public college and politics
A recent study shows 51% of young Americans support the idea of free college, becoming one of the most common topics in the 2020 presidential debates.
The incentive of free tuition makes higher education more accessible, which is why all of the front-runner Democratic presidential candidates have implemented some form of free college into their campaigns.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders originally brought the idea of free college into the conversation. Sanders, along with Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, promise to make college free for everyone including low-income and wealthy families alike.
Other candidates like Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, said he would make college “affordable for all” and completely free for low-income students.
Most candidates differ in how they propose free college would be funded, with some opting to expand federal grants while others suggest taxing wealthier Americans.
The pros and cons of free tuition
Those in favor of free tuition for public colleges argue that it would open doors and create opportunities for low-income students.
“I think it would increase access,” said Cid Siedelman, who teaches economics at Westminster. “It would certainly make college significantly more attainable for many students.”
College students often work multiple jobs while in school to pay off tuition and student loans. Without this stress of having to pay tuition, students would have more time to focus on coursework, Siedelman said.
“When I was a college student […] you weren’t working like 30-40 hours a week like a lot of our students are,” Siedelman said. “A free college would mean that basically students focused on their studies and tend to focus less on work. I think that would be a significant benefit.”
While the idea of free college is nice and beneficial, some people are up in tangles with the question of how it would be funded.
After the Great Recession in 2008, many states saw significant decreases in its tax revenues. According to Siedelman, states must balance budgets because they are held to higher fiscal standards than the federal government.
As a result, states began cutting back significantly on education funding and public colleges became more expensive and “privatized.” This led to the population picking up less of the tab in taxes, leaving the individual students to pay through tuition and fees.
“That’s led to this kind of political uprising of saying that college ought to be free,” Siedelman said.
As inclusive as free college may sound, some argue that it will just perpetuate class privilege even further.
“It creates a situation where you have this huge demand and this limited supply,” said Hal Snarr, an economics professor. “Maybe the schools can be more selective. Who’s going to be selected out? […] Maybe the people with high GPAs and high ACT scores, maybe from exclusive private liberal arts or private high schools. Who are they? The rich.”
Snarr also argues that this idea of free college wouldn’t actually be “free”, but that schools would just shift the costs somewhere else. Students can expect to see higher costs in room and board, sports tickets or campus food.
Private school survival in the age of free college
Last week, Westminster announced a tuition hike with an 8.5% increase for next academic year affecting incoming and current students. With private school tuition gradually going up in recent years, some studies have shown free public universities may bring the downfall of private colleges.
However, Snarr argues it could lead to Americans seeing a major drop in education quality if public colleges become tuition-free.
“If you make it free, the college doesn’t have any incentive to innovate and I think it’s going to hurt them,” Snarr said. “I think what it might do is, in a reverse way, create a demand for liberal arts colleges.”
It’s like rent control, Snarr said. When you have a long line of people fighting for the same product, schools will have less of an incentive to maintain high-quality.
“If universities aren’t responsive to students now at these universities they’re going to be even less responsive to the needs of students in the future when it’s free,” Snarr said.
With zero price on tuition, prospective students may perceive less value in the school. Once they do that, Snarr said, they will begin to look for other alternatives.
“I think it depends on why you’re going to college and what you’re hoping to get out of it,” said Beth Dobkin, president of Westminster College. “To serve those students at a low enough cost to make it free, you also are likely to make some compromises in quality. So, you’ll just further the disparities we already have.”
Consumers are willing to pay more for what they place value in, Snarr said. That’s why the Nike brand and Michael Jordan shoes do so well with its higher prices. Students are willing to pay more for something they care about.
With only free tuition being offered to public colleges, Snarr said it creates a culture that punishes people who sacrifice and rewards those who don’t.
Sam Bidney, a third-year student majoring in aviation, said he would be fine if other Utah schools became tuition-free and he remained at Westminster.
“It would be worth it to take out money even when other schools are free,” Bidney said. “You’ve got to put something in to get something out.”
Snarr said it’s that mindset that will keep private schools alive.
“I think liberal arts colleges honestly are poised to do well,”Snarr said. “I think if we can weather the storm, then we’re really well-positioned for the future. I think we can grow and become successful.”
*Westminster College’s Admissions Office declined to comment