There has been a lot of buzz about the idea of Tuition-Free Public Universities this year, as this idea has worked it's way into what is almost certainly going to be the DNC platform for the election in 2020. I get that. While I have been fortunate enough to have had a job good enough to pay off all of my own, but also my wife's student loans by my early 30s, a lot of people are drowning in debt, and either un- or under-employed.
I am incredibly glad that this discussion appears to be focused on Public Universities, as that at least suggests that if this comes to pass, it won't just be a way to enrich low-performing private colleges (or Real Estate funds masquerading as colleges), at the expense of students.
I think that approaching the problem of rising costs of a university education by moving Tuition onto the tax payer is premature, because we have problems in our Education system nationally that such a program is likely to make much worse, and in so doing, make many of our biggest national challenges, even harder.
To begin, I'd like to take a look at one of the nations with free college that people often point to as an example in these discussions: Germany. The German model does work reasonably well in Germany, that is true, though there have been concerns that the system is unsustainable for years. In fact, several German states attempted to institute nominal tuition fees in the early oughts, though they had to roll that back due to massive push-back. Which is simply to say that Germany's system has some scaling issues that they haven't worked out yet, and we need to be aware of that.
While Germany is a much smaller nation than ours, we have a higher GDP per Capita, which does mean that, assuming we can build a taxation structure that stops 500 people from 'earning' $1,200,000,000,000 in a single year we could theoretically make such a thing feasible.
So why do I oppose this? I believe that any system of free tuition will make income inequality, particularly as it applies to students of color, worse. If we don't address the inherent inequities in our primary and secondary schooling systems, we stand to do more harm than good.
Our Public Schools are principally funded by property taxes. Black Neighborhoods tend to have lower property values, even after you control for basically everything (home's are comparable, neighborhoods have same amenities, crime rates, etc). On average nationally, this amounts to around $48,000 less in value per home. Because generally speaking, White People don't want to live in "Black" neighborhoods. Even relatively affluent, middle class black neighborhoods.
As a result of this, even when you compare relatively poor neighborhoods, which have frequently self-selected for race (or been helped along by red-lining), poor white schools have, on average, $1,500 more per student than poor black schools. For non-poor (but still segregated due to neighborhood dynamics) schools, that figure nears $2,000 per student. More funding translates to better resources, smaller class sizes; all things that lead to better educational outcomes.
Failure to address this basic inequity means that Black students remain at a disadvantage when entering Universities because their primary and secondary education likely wasn't as good. Pair this with the likely outcome that already over stressed public universities will need to raise their admissions standards.
There are a lot of factors that play into the rise of tuition costs. Certainly, ready availability of loans is part of it. One piece that I don't think gets enough attention is the increase in student populations, which all require extra resources above what state funding levels (which have been steadily decreasing) provide. In the 1970s, only about 47% of the population went to college. Today, that number is well over 80%. This is also down from a peak of over 90% in 2011.
Since the 1970s, the US Population has also increased by ~100 Million people, putting the number of people who's attended tertiary education from ~94 Million, to 240 Million. According to Washington State University's Institutional Research figures, even as overall student participation rates have been dropping nationwide, WSU has seen a roughly 15% increase in it's enrollment numbers, while tuition rates have dropped about 8% for in-state students, and risen 2% for out-of-state students (I also have no idea how primarily state-funded schools are intended to navigate this free-tuition mandate with regard to in-state versus out-of-state students, but I don't think anyone else does either). It's also worth noting that, on a longer time scale, WSU's population since 2001 (when I entered college), has increased 37%, while it's in-state tuition rates have increased by ~270%.
Free tuition, by removing a primary as a means to control the cost of growth, will likely lead to higher enrollment standards, which will only serve to increase the gap that poor people already struggle to overcome, but which impacts people of color in the US even more than it does Whites. Until we are more equitable in our primary and secondary education, our tertiary education systems will only serve to widen an already too wide gap. The tools we use to gauge students are already demonstrated to be gameable and disadvantageous to poor or non-white students; this will only get worse as minimum entry standards rise.
A university education is too expensive. This is unquestionable. This comes from many factors, from increased demand due to larger student populations (and the idea that without a college degree, you can't succeed that is pushed hard on high school students), to inefficiencies in administration, to reduction in state-level support in many places. Efforts to increase student access to a college education has instead largely increased the debt load for students who aren't seeing the increased opportunity that was implied when they were encouraged to take on that debt. More open access to loans has contributed to higher costs, though I do tend to think that results more of a factor of increased utilization than institutional greed, outside of the for-profit colleges.
Returning for a moment to Germany, it's worth noting that many students in that country choose (or are pushed toward) secondary schools when they enter the fifth grade that indicate whether or not they are expected to be on path toward university. While German students have, since the 1970s, been migrating from the more general Hauptschulen to the more advanced Realschulen, over half of the students in Germany tended to attend the Hauptschulen for a minimal general education, with barely over 10% of students in the university-bound Gymnasien by 2000. In the decades since, the university population has continued to grow, but it still looks likely that the percentage of German students that end up in Universities is less than 20% of the population. Compare this to the roughly 70% of American High School graduates who were enrolled in college in 2018.
I can't speak to the quality of German Hauptschulen or Realschulen compared to US High Schools. However, the idea that American's would accept that we were going to offer free tuition to all, but were going to cap enrollments to 20% of the High School Graduate population instead of the 70% we have today, is laughable. And it runs counter to what many people would expect, though it's the reality of the system people most frequently point to when discussing this issue.
Prioritizing education is critical to the future of our nation. However we have to shore up the base of our system. Make it more evenly distributed. Ensure that the opportunities we provide are more based on merit and ability than the confounding factors of the circumstances of birth and generational wealth. We can't solve our education problems from the top down, we need to start from the bottom up to ensure that everyone has access to the same opportunities, to control for race and other factors, we stand to more deeply entrench our problems.
I want to call out a great thread from Michael Harriot about America's history of White Supremacy that is absolutely worth a read. While I'd been skeptical of free tuition for many of the reasons I'd written in this post prior to Michael's thread, he called out several resources, particular about the racial gap in American schools that I believe improved my arguments, and captured that those funding differences are more stark than I'd thought.