I am ready to declare my candidacy for the Presidency, having won the very tiny caucus of the Interrogative Party. Motto: “You’ve got answers? We’ve got questions!” My wobbly platform will consist only of complicated questions that I don’t know the answer to and would enjoy hearing your thoughts about.
First plank: Aside from issues of access, what would happen if we made American public higher education tuition-free?
(I’m not dismissing the importance of access. I care deeply about it and have Very Strong Opinions about how to achieve it. But plenty of people, including other Presidential candidates, are debating that issue already.)
1. At any given time, about a third of American college students are attending two-year public colleges, and among students at four-year schools, nearly half have had some experience at a two-year school. At the two-year schools, the average tuition is about $3,800 per year. Michigan-Ann Arbor’s out-of state tuition is about $43,000 per year, or about $14,000 for in-staters. (These numbers are tuition-only, not comprehensive fees, and do not account for financial aid.) How would zeroing out tuition change the respective roles of two-year and four-year public education in the American system?
2. At flagship public universities, the non-tuition costs are approximately $15,000 per year for residential students. How would the amount and significance of these costs change in a tuition-free system?
3. How would the role of international students in American colleges and universities (both public and private) change if the public ones stopped charging tuition?
4. How would changing the source of operating income from (primarily) tuition to (largely) direct government funding change the roles of politicians and their appointees in the governance of higher education? How would the mode of education itself change?
5. We often hear about European systems in discussions of tuition expenses, but the U.S. has a different kind of system of private higher education. How would the American system of private higher ed affect (and be affected by) the dynamics of a shift to tuition-free public higher ed? What changes in cultural capital and competitive dynamics would result from the shift?
I’d genuinely love to hear your thoughts on any of these points. I’d prefer that nobody mentions any politicians from other parties. Ambivalence, uncertainty, and especially curiosity are very welcome.