- Free college in the U.S. could require trade-offs in the form of lower attainment and fewer resources for institutions, contends a new report from the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), a right-leaning think tank based in Washington, D.C.
- The report ranked the U.S. and 34 other developed countries based on higher education attainment, resources and subsidies. The researchers found a correlation between a country ranking high for one quality and moderate or low for the others.
- Finland ranks No. 1 for subsidies but No. 11 for resources and No. 25 for attainment. South Korea topped the list for attainment but ranked low for subsidies and resources. The U.S. ranks high for resources and attainment but is No. 31 in subsidies, meaning students share more of the cost for higher ed than in other developed countries.
The study aimed to show how countries' diverging goals and values could cause them to take different approaches to support higher education for their citizens.
However, free college in the countries examined doesn’t mean the institutions are open-access.
"All government (spending) programs have rationing — that is, the program isn't available to everyone — so if you have free college you'll find a very low admission rate," Jason Delisle, co-author of the report and a resident fellow at AEI, told Education Dive in an interview.
When tuition and fees no longer block access to college for some students, institutions or the government may keep enrollment in check through enrollment caps or selective admissions criteria such as entrance exams, the report says.
However, those methods run counter to the prevailing objective of free college in the U.S., which is to expand access to higher education, particularly for underserved groups.
In countries where the government highly subsidizes education, the report notes, attainment levels are lower than in countries where the government doesn't provide ample subsidies for higher education.
"Nowhere are the negative correlations between metrics more pronounced than in the relationship between attainment and subsidies," the authors wrote.
Delisle said he's already seeing "fine-print rationing" at some free college proposals for state public colleges, such as by requiring that students be full-time or be a recent high school graduate.
Free college is one of several Democratic presidential hopefuls' main policy planks. Many have been pushing for free college in the mold of some Scandinavian countries like Finland and Sweden.
Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., along with two Democratic representatives in June introduced legislation to eliminate tuition and fees at public four-year colleges, community colleges, trade schools and apprenticeship programs. A few months earlier, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., issued an expansive proposal calling for tuition-free college.
In March, Warren, along with Democratic Sens. Cory Booker, D-N.J, Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Kamala Harris, D-Calif., among others, announced the Debt-Free College Act, which would provide a full federal match for state higher education appropriations if the state agrees to pay students' full cost of attendance.
Roughly half of states offer their residents some form of a free college program, and around 300 local programs guarantee students tuition-free college at public institutions.
While early results of free college programs show they have the potential to increase access to higher education and possibly attainment, critics warn they don't cover all costs of attendance, such as transportation, rent, books and childcare, which could hamper their equity goals, and that they leave schools under-resourced.
Delisle, meanwhile, warns that adopting free college in the U.S. could have broader implications for access. "Many will be denied access, or, simultaneously, at some institutions, there could be a significant reduction in quality if they become under-resourced," he said.