Opinion: Free college tuition won’t work, no matter what progressive Democrats tell you

Newly minted  college graduates take part in a  class photo in Philadelphia in May 2015.
Newly minted college graduates toss their caps in a class photo in Philadelphia in 2015.
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

Free college, a fringe idea not long ago, has gone mainstream in the Democratic primary campaign. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are notably running on zeroing out tuition and fees. According to a July poll by the New York Times, about three out of five Americans support guaranteed free tuition to two- and four-year colleges. More than 20 states and a host of cities have trimmed or eliminated tuition charges at community colleges. New York state has gone further, making a no-tuition commitment to bachelor’s degree candidates whose family or personal income is less than $125,000 a year.

Eliminating tuition sounds like a utopian good, but it misses the mark. It ignores the biggest reason students aren’t earning college degrees — an appallingly high dropout rate — and it may make the situation worse.

For the record:

8:06 a.m. Nov. 18, 2019An earlier version of this piece misidentified Michael Lovenheim as Daniel Lovenheim.

Freshmen are generally confident that they will earn a bachelor’s degree in four years, but only about 40% actually do. Even after six years, just 60% have graduated. Community colleges have an even worse record — about one in three earn an associate degree in three years. A high school with such a woeful record would be labeled a dropout factory.


The effect on students who leave school before graduating is profound. They are three times as likely to default on college loans and more likely to be unemployed than college grads. Over their lifetimes, they will earn as much as $1 million less.

It’s tempting to think that dropping out is merely a money issue and that zero tuition will solve the problem. Mitt Romney thought so; when he was governor of Massachusetts, he launched the merit-based Adams Scholarships, which offer eight tuition-free semesters at Massachusetts public colleges and universities to students who score high on a statewide achievement test.

But as Brandeis University economist Joshua Goodman, coauthor with Sarah Cohodes of a study of the Adams Scholarships, explains, the winning students don’t save much money. Tuition is relatively cheap in Massachusetts — less than $1,000 at community colleges and regional public universities. The dollar crunch comes from the fees charged for such things as enrolling in classes to participating in graduation ceremonies. Those bills can be a shocker — at the state university in Bridgewater, Mass., for instance, tuition is $910 a year but fees come to nearly $10,000.

The most comprehensive of the Democratic candidates’ plans would tackle fees and tuition at public institutions, but there remains a stubborn problem. Dangling free education in front of students prompts them to choose state colleges that are often less competitive and have lower graduation rates than schools they might otherwise have attended. Even a scholarship winner can get dragged down by the forces that contribute to those lower rates. The Adams Scholarship researchers looked at students with similar test scores and compared those who took free tuition and went to state schools with those who didn’t and went to more competitive schools. The Adams recipients were 40% less likely to graduate on time.

As for community college, research shows that free tuition alone at two-year schools draws students away from four-year institutions. Because the graduation rate at community colleges is much lower than at four-year schools, these students are less likely to earn bachelor’s degrees. If they manage an associate diploma, they’ll earn about 30% less than those who graduate with a bachelor’s degree.

In short, quality matters, and many dollar-starved state schools can only afford to batch-process students. They can’t provide the small classes, wide array of courses and accessible advisors that contribute to high graduation rates. Free-college proposals don’t include plans to replace the money that these schools, which rely heavily on tuition, would lose if zero tuition comes to pass. What’s more, economists project that in a free-college world, university enrollment would increase by as much as 22%, stretching bare-bones budgets even further.


All of this suggests a different approach to improving graduation rates. States need to exercise political leadership to restore, and then increase, the estimated $9 billion that lawmakers slashed from their higher education budgets during the last decade. In a nationwide study, economists Michael Lovenheim, Rajashri Chakrabarti and Nicole Gorton showed the outsized impact of more funding. They compared students who were enrolled in state colleges when a budget increase kicked in and those who attended the same schools before the increased funding. By their 30s, students who had the benefit of more state support had higher credit scores and lower credit card debt than the comparison group; they were also more likely to own homes and cars, and more likely to have enrolled in graduate school.

The study didn’t detail what the additional money paid for, but other research has shown that common sense investments make a difference — hiring more instructors, adding advisors who can deliver the “we have your back” assistance that students need, and offering more sections of classes required for students to finish their majors. Instead of stalling out for want of a few credits, the added class sections allow students to efficiently get their degrees and move on.

“Free college” will surely increase enrollment in four- and two-year schools, but if it doesn’t get students across the finish line it won’t shrink the opportunity gap. Middle-class and low-income students need financial aid, but that’s different from guaranteeing a free ride for all. The goal is not to lure high-schoolers into college with zero tuition, it’s to assure that those who do enroll graduate.

David Kirp, a professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, is the author of “The College Dropout Scandal.”