A Radical Idea ... Really!

I've been toying with this idea that sprang out of a conversation about higher ed with my recovering-liberal-arts-major friends. Try this on for size:

Education costs in the United States are completely out of whack. Whether you're a grad or undergrad, two-thirds of you (according to last night's 60 Minutes report) are not getting out without major debt.

What would happen if a major institution offered free tuition?

Let's see ... for this exercise, let's say that Harvard, who has the largest endowment known to man, offered free tuition for the classes of 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011. No matter which class, the university picks up the tab for all four years, and all students would have to pay are the taxes.

(For the record, I am not affiliated with Haaaavard. But I live in an area that is saturated with colleges and universities. So, if not Harvard, insert another top-ranked school here. I work for one of those top-ranked schools.)

With an opportunity to graduate without debt, who wouldn't want to go to Harvard? They would set the standard for attracting the best students with the highest GPAs and those most likely to succeed. Of course, they have that already, but their application pool would be diverse to the extreme. Think about it: wouldn't you want to go to THE best school if you didn't have to pay? It would be like applying for the lottery, except statistically you'd have a better shot of winning.

Now imagine the ripple effect throughout the academic community. Harvard's competitors (hard to think of other universities and colleges as competition but that's exactly how they see themselves) would have to match their offer or top it. And how could you really top free tuition? But if, say, other ivy league schools with deep pockets could pony up similar offers, then what would happen to the smaller colleges across the country? Students would go where they could get the best offers, and higher ed would have to work harder to attract the best students. Would colleges and institutions lower tuitions and increase the benefits to compete? I can't even fathom the rankings shift, and what it would mean to be the top-ranked school in the country under those conditions.

For Harvard, free tuition is a win-win in this scenario. It opens up a new chapter into the myth that is Harvard. I mean, imagine truly having the most intelligent, talented, and driven student population attending. In turn, Harvard "grows" a generation of alumni who would be more than willing to donate to the institution that gave them so much.

Students after graduation and into their 30s are so strapped for cash nowadays; they don't give money or volunteer to their alma maters, in part, because they are saddled with student loan debt. I'm speculating that with increased competition for the best and the brightest, the high tide would lift all boats. More money and care would be spent by competing institutions on financial aid packages (with more favorable loan agreements), upgrading the infrastructure, increasing salaries for faculty and staff, etc.

Let's take it one step further. You could make the case that colleges already offer the best packages available. Some schools roll in laptops and iPods into to the equasion. But against free tuition, competing colleges could conceivably offer:

  1. Guaranteed job placement after graduation. You come to our school, we'll make sure you work at Microsoft after you shift the tassel from right to left.
  2. Money to purchase your first home.
  3. Free health care for your first few years after college.
  4. Free graduate school tuition after completing your undergraduate degree, kind of like a two-for-one education special.

Remember, while this may seem out of the realm of possibility, we're talking about a paradigm shift in higher education. We haven't seen that since ... well ... the Internet.

So, do I think academic institutions are moving this way? Not in the near future. But something has to be done about the exorbitant costs for students who want to an education but cannot afford it.

Let me be clear. Something has to be done about the perception in North America that the only way to attend college is to take on debt. But that, my friends, is a post for another day.


Anonymous said…
I love the idea. Rumor has it, that with Harvard's $1billion endowment, they *could* conceivably offer free tuition. After recently being privy to a lot of high-up college-admin budget meetings, though, I can see that it would effect the operating costs of the school; eventually.

BUT...what if they offered free tution to a PORTION of the students? Say, the top 10% of applicants? Then you could even tier the tuition scale for the students further down the totem pole...
January said…
Well, I think (and I have no hard facts about this) that 10% of college applicants come from upper- or upper-middle-class families. And, those are the ones who get scholarships. So by giving tuition to the top 10% might be perceived as elitist.

But that could free up money and allow more applicants to get a break going to one of the most expensive universities in the country.

I didn't consider the operating costs into my lofty notion, but like most institutions of higher ed, they would find a way to keep the money or raise tuition and fees.

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