The question of whether higher education should be free on a universal basis remains topical in the current academic environment. In fact, many experts and scholars voice their concerns in regard to education’s costs. More specifically, increased tuition fees may prevent thousands of students from obtaining a high-quality degree that will help them advance on the path to a successful career. In fact, the advocates of socialist systems of education insist on the necessity of free access to universities and colleges. From their perspective, such an approach reflects the human-centric ideas of today’s democracies and their values.
In a way, education may be considered a basic right of each person, and the commercialization of the sphere has a lasting detrimental impact on developed societies. However, it may be wiser to take a less radical stance on the matter hand, aiming at feasible and considerate solutions. This paper argues that the unconditional access on a free basis risks decreasing the value and importance of higher education. Thus, universities can and should be free but for the people who actually want and deserve a degree.
The discussion regarding a tuition-free paradigm of higher education has been heated across the past decades. The proponents of such an approach are convinced that the current fee-based system deprives people of the opportunities to obtain a degree and advance on their professional paths. However, a tuition-free model entails an array of negative implications that are equally discussed within the contemporary body of knowledge. First of all, tuition fees become one of the primary sources of income for the institutions of higher education. Universities sustain major expenses in terms of teacher and staff pay, equipment purchases, maintenance, and other critical aspects of their functioning. According to De Gayardo, without tuition fees, these expenditures will remain, becoming an additional stressor for the state economy (487).
Furthermore, the implementation of such a system will entail hidden costs for both organizations and students. In fact, the international experience prompts De Gayardo to believe that the latter will see more impediments to obtaining a degree, as universities and private entities attempt to compensate for their financial losses. Thus, the economic prospects of tuition-free education are not promising.
In addition, the potential repercussions of the implementation of a free university education model extend beyond the domain of financial relations. Bulter-Adam investigates the case of the South African Republic where a similar paradigm has taken effect (1). In this regard, the complex nature of modern systems of education entails severe issues on all levels. The resources of these systems are inevitably finite, meaning that an emphasis on higher education results in the decreased quality of prior stages. As the focus shifts toward universities and colleges, middle and high schools receive less attention, which undermines their ability to prepare competent graduates.
In the case of South Africa, the implementation of a tuition-free system of higher education became associated with higher dropout rates in schools between grades four and twelve (Butler-Adam 1). Simultaneously, the remaining students see poorer learning outcomes, becoming less prepared for the university-level challenges. Thus, the realization of a free university system becomes virtually pointless if the students’ level does not suffice to utilize the newly obtained access to higher education.
The university-level repercussions of a fully open system of higher education have been equally observed in Argentina. Adrogue et al. report that the implementation of such a paradigm compromised the quality and value of university degrees in this country (1). Following the emergence of the new system, an unprecedented number of people enrolled in the institution of higher education. This tendency increased the workload of the faculties who continued to perform duties with limited financial resources. In addition, most newly enrolled students lacked the motivation to complete their curricula, which entailed record high drop-out rates combined with decreased performance levels (Adrogue et al. 6).
Low retention and graduation percentages cast a shadow on the perceived ability of the system to meet the expectations of the students. This piece of information makes it possible to suggest that fully open access to education leads to a greater number of students who pursue a degree out of mere curiosity. In other words, thousands of people who do not really need higher education still attempt to obtain it, wasting the finite resources of the system.
On the other hand, the proponents of free education engage in the global discussion of affordability. More specifically, they state that the system in its current form prevents millions of talented individuals from becoming professionals because of merely financial reasons. Consequently, global economic development does not reach its full potential, as promising contributors do not receive enough chances for self-realization. According to Tivaringe, this tendency encompasses entire social and ethnic groups who are marginalized by communities (2). As a result, these people remain outside the contemporary development trends and labor markets.
In this context, universities play the pivotal role of a bridge that can counteract major socioeconomic gaps in both developed and emerging societies. Affordable higher education helps people become integrated into society and fulfill their potential to a complete extent.
Nevertheless, in spite of the sense of being synonymous, affordable higher education is not necessarily equivalent to a completely open system. As can be inferred from the academic evidence, the implementation of tuition-free education is a bilateral process that works on two levels. While considerably more people obtain access to universities and colleges, the value and quality of these degrees depreciate rapidly. In light of President Biden’s initiative to make community colleges free in the United States, the matter at hand saw a new surge in public attention. Weissman argues that the implementation of this plan will have damaging repercussions on both economic and social levels.
The detrimental impact is to be particularly observable in the institutions that are currently underresourced, as “lawmakers may feel less pressed to fund higher education” (para. 12). Ultimately, the current arsenal of developed states possesses more effective ways of making higher education accessible to talented low-income students without compromising the quality and the value of the degrees.
Overall, while the necessity for more affordable systems of higher education has become acute, a completely open, tuition-free basis may not be the optimal choice. More specifically, universities and colleges should become more accessible for low-income candidates but only if their motivation and talents are on par. Going to the extremes of providing the population with free and unrestrained access will undermine the financial capacity of the system. In the mid-to-long term, such a development may create a highly unfavorable work environment for the faculties of state institutions. Accordingly, qualified human resources may flee the public sector of education, opting for private institutions that, in turn, will feel free to increase their fees. Thus, an alternative, well-balanced approach to the matter at hand will yield better results.
Adrogue, Cecilia et al. “Gaps in Persistence under Open-Access and Tuition-Free Public Higher Education Policies.” Education Policy Analysis Archives, vol 26, no. 126, 2018, pp. 1-23. Web.
Butler-Adam, J. “Suffer, Little Children: Paying the Price of ‘Free’ Higher Education.” South African journal of science, vol 114, no. 3-4, 2018, pp. 1-1. Web.
De Gayardon, Ariane. “There is No Such Thing as Free Higher Education: A Global Perspective on the (Many) Realities of Free Systems.” Higher Education Policy, vol 32, no. 3, 2019, pp. 485-505. Web.
Tivaringe, Tafadzwa. “The Social Unemployment Gap in South Africa: Limits of Enabling Socio-Economic Redress through Expanding Access to Higher Education.” Education Policy Analysis Archives, vol 27, no. 155, 2019, pp. 1-31. Web.
Weissman, S. “The Complexities of Free College.” Inside Higher Ed, 2021. Web.