Why tuition-free college may devalue degrees and deepen class divides

It might be better to address why the cost of college is soaring, rather than simply accepting the bulge

Now that the spring semester is in full-swing for most university systems—and the free-college campaign is gaining traction with President Biden’s administration taking root in the White House—careful consideration should be given to the charge for government intervention in Higher Ed financing.

Although mounting fees and tuition hikes are a big concern, here are a few things to ponder before dismantling existing funding streams for subsidized alternatives.

Premium private institutions will prevail

Affordability has yet to prove itself as an attractive feature for academia, and tuition-free colleges and free college equivalency programs that already are in existence have not suppressed the urge to enroll at institutions viewed to be of higher status.

Actually, the higher the price, the greater the interest, since it is assumed to be of greater value—in terms of professors, resources, residency amenities, and placement potential (grad school or job offers).

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Perhaps that is why financial planning for college is at an all time high despite any uncertainties caused by COVID-19.

People would rather attend a nominally high-cost college with support funding (by way of scholarships, grants, federal aid) instead of attending an institution within their means. And those who are able to work (or play) the system will continue to vie for the best options.

Degree devaluation and quality concerns

Tuition-free institutions will run the risk of being undervalued by future employers given the inability for recent graduates to differentiate their degrees, which will not be the case for those attending private institutions where competition for furthering brand equity will still be a factor.

Kimberlee Josephson, Lebanon Valley College
Kimberlee Josephson, Lebanon Valley College

Those who can pay to get ahead, will continue to do so at private institutions, and they will continue to call the shots by ordering their add-ons, expecting perks, and having an inflated view of higher education. And for those who end up attending subsidized semesters, bargaining power for course offerings will be absent and college resources will be pre-determined and fixed.

Such concerns were previously raised in an analysis by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce regarding Hillary Clinton’s free-college plan.

The study determined that premier institutions would be more selective about applicants (given that those not chosen now had free options to retreat to) and a swell in enrollments to government funded institutions would occur resulting in overcrowding, depleting personalized attention and resources, and resulting in slower and lower graduation rates overall.

Valuable middle-skill positions will be sidelined

Higher ed is already diminishing in value as more and more people obtain degrees, making it less of a distinguishing factor for graduates. And degree inflation is problematic since the value of a degree is not always apparent to the demands of available jobs (and some jobs pay quite well without higher ed as a precursor).

Degree attainment delays entry into the workforce and a majority of middle-skilled positions don’t require a four-year education, such as nurse’s aids, landscapers, stylists and designers, etc.

Moreover, apprenticeship programs seem just as effective, if not more so, for developing human capital and advancing the US economy, according to a report by the Harvard Business school co-authored with labor-market analytics firm Burning Glass Technologies.

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Positions associated with trade schools may lose their appeal if college becomes the more cost competitive option. And it wouldn’t make sense for a student to seek out technical skills at trade schools when they know they’ll be paying taxes to subsidize degree programs for their peers.

Funding will be funnelled

Tuition costs being lumped into part of government spending initiatives will have a ripple effect on those who aim to help with the financing of higher ed—whether out of the goodness of their hearts as philanthropic alums, out of the desire to obtain tax breaks and campus accolades, or because it is their job (financial aid advisors, advancement officers, scholarship providers, nonprofits, and college counselors).

Such connections, contributions, and scholarships will remain for prestigious institutions, furthering the network of those enrolled while leaving out students who have the ‘free’ option.

Overall, it might be better to address why the cost of college is soaring, rather than simply accepting the bulge and passing the tuition bill on to the government — and taxpayers.

Kimberlee Josephson is the associate dean of the Breen Center for Graduate Success and an assistant professor of business administration at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania.

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