In the spring of 2016, I was fortunate enough to spend a semester abroad studying in Lund University, Sweden. Like all other institutions of higher education in the country, Lund University is free of charge for students in EU member countries. But what does free college really mean? From my perspective, free college sounds like a great idea: less financial pressure, a head start on building my savings instead of draining it into federal loan repayments, and more opportunities for high school graduates that would otherwise be unable to afford it. However, through research, anecdotal stories and observations from my time abroad, I realized the pros for free college were only one side of the coin. There are three areas I want to focus on: better defining what “free college” actually is in Sweden and its impression in the U.S., discussing how subsidizing college will affect the quality of education, and finally, addressing whether subsidizing college will increase access to higher education for disadvantaged students.
First of all, there is a catch to free college in Sweden. The first wall that I had to knock down was my preconceived notion that going to school for free would mean erasing student debt. Contrary to that idea, the only part of Swedish university that is free is the tuition. Students are still responsible for all other living expenses, including textbooks, room and board, which Studera.nu, a website dedicated to amassing information about Swedish higher education, estimates to be about 10,000SEK per month, or 1,100USD. For a typical 3-year bachelor’s degree in Sweden, this could run up a little over $40,000 by the end of one’s career on average. If you lived in big cities like Stockholm or Göteborg, this cost would increase even more. Because of that, 52% of Swedish students were taking an average of $6,800 per year out in public loans (compared to 62% of U.S. bachelor’s degree students taking out an average of $4,300) and ended up with an average of $22,000 in debt at graduation according to the OECD’s latest report. Additionally, there is the consideration that students who took out loans for college could have entered the workforce straightaway and started to make money rather than spend what little savings they had on tuition and the living expenses they would have been responsible for in both scenarios.
So what about the U.S. and free college? According to a Gallup poll released during the height of the 2016 primary elections, only 47% of people support free college tuition. 63% of people 18-34 years of age and 67% of Democrats said they would support a proposal to make college tuition free; by contrast, 23% of Republicans and 37% of people 55 years of age or older supported the proposal. The concerns on both sides are understandable: young people do not want as much debt coming out of college but older people who have more taxable income do not want to pay for it. People in support of the proposal believe that tuition-free college is key to preserving the equality of opportunity for all people to get higher education and those in support of maintaining the status quo do not want to see the federal government being swallowed by the financial debt concomitant with such an undertaking and believe in market competition to provide financing options for students rather than the government stepping in.
One aspect to consider while weighing the costs and benefits of free college tuition is to make sure that this change in policy does not cause a degradation of the value and quality of higher education. A common refrain I heard from my Swedish classmates when I asked them how they felt about the tuition-free university experience was that they felt dragged down by other students who did not take their education as seriously. Similarly to how American public classrooms tend to work against those with different aptitudes, opting instead to lump large numbers of students of varying degrees of ability, colleges in Sweden have lecture halls with students of mixed motivation who can sometimes sour the experience for others. Students will enroll for free and get their education, but often value the education at the price they got it for - very little. When I need an impetus to study, I just think about the fact that I pay almost $400 per credit and I start to sit up a little more in class.
I am not disparaging the worth of a college education in the United States. It is clear that people that attain higher education are earning more relative to their less-educated counterparts (OECD Education at a Glance, 125). Rather, what is the relative worth of college made tuition-free versus the status quo? Lund University used to be tuition-free even for international students, but introduced tuition fees in 2011. This move was accompanied by a sharp decline in enrollment, but also, a realization that Lund University was in competition with other schools to provide a better quality education. When all public institutions are free, there is the possibility that the quality offered at these institutions could be negatively affected as well due to the lack of market incentives.
If Americans are considering tuition-free higher education, we have to think about how best to accommodate the inevitable increase in student enrollment. Already, public institutions have been seeing rising enrollment rates and have hiked up tuition fees to match. Finding good quality faculty members to fill the ranks is not like hiring in other professions: it takes time to build up the credentials and experience to become a professor. The void would be sorely felt by students attempting to get their education in this lengthy transitory period, during which the teacher to student ratio would decrease and classroom sizes would increase.
Finally, the major reasoning behind many calls for tuition-free higher education: it will help bring lower socioeconomic classes into universities and level the playing field for groups traditionally unable to afford college. Interestingly enough, first-time graduation rates in higher education for Sweden is around 40%, compared to the OECD average of about 50% and the United States, which is at about 55% (OECD Education at a Glance, 60). Contrary to popular belief, just because tuition is free does not mean that everyone is taking advantage of the opportunity. However, Sweden and the U.S. are different in demographic composition and organization of higher education as well as cultural attitudes towards getting higher education. So other considerations should come into play when tracking the impact of tuition-free university on enrollment rates across socioeconomic classes.
Indeed, skeptics of the purported positive effects of making tuition free for the less wealthy question whether or not the effects will reach the desired groups. The problem is, for students who cannot afford college, tuition is only the first brick in the proverbial wall. They have to worry about relocation costs, room and board, and are already in a bad position from a K-12 education that have the same imbalancing effects on their ability to gain an equitable education to that of someone from a well-off family. If we think about the case at UVA, all students who were deemed to have financial need were awarded financial aid. The problem is two-fold. College is expensive and students coming from low-income backgrounds are not going to college (or if they do, they are getting financial aid), and the wealthy ones are going nonetheless and able to pay for it. Enrollment rates for low-income students have dropped to 45% compared to about 78% among high-income students. So, taking all these facts into consideration, if we drop tuition fees for public institutions who exactly benefits? The beneficiaries would not be the low-income students that the proponents claim. This policy would ameliorate the cost of going to college for the wealthy families who already financially and emotionally support their children.
Free college can take on many different definitions and it is important that voters and community members are careful to decide for themselves what definition they support and figure out what definition their representatives are supporting. For example, Bernie Sanders is a proponent of making public college tuition-free and debt-free by taxing Wall Street speculators and cutting student loan interest rates while allowing refinancing options. Other ideas about free college extend to cover public and private institutions - some think there should be stipends to cover living costs. However, the traditional rose-colored view of the benefits of tuition-free college is dangerous if we assume that free college automatically means everyone will be able to get a college education that is worth the same as it was before.