Is Free Tuition Really Free?

I know you shouldn’t look a gift horse in the mouth (and surely there’s a 21st century version of that around somewhere…), and I support colleges’ and universities’ using more of their endowments to ease the financial burden on families with low incomes. In fact, I work with first-generation and underserved students, so anything that eases their way to college I support. But I wonder about the implications of a “free” college education: By not asking a student or family to make any financial commitment to a college education, how will that change the dynamic between them and the college or university? And how will it affect the way a student values that education?

I’ve worked with the Daniel Murphy Foundation here in Chicago for a number of years. They help talented 8th graders from needy families attend private schools here and elsewhere by providing a scholarship and by getting the host schools to kick in most of the resrt of the tuition. But no matter how financially needy the family is, they are asked to contribute something to their child’s education. This seems proper to me because it asks the family to back up its generalized support of its son or daughter with hard cold cash, a measure of its commitment. It’s a commonplace that we value most what we pay for, and I think that applies here, too.

One might say that disadvantaged families are already in enough of an economic bind but I’m not talking about asking for anything that the family can’t handle. The DMSF pegs its request of the family to income and families are able to pay it. It’s not about the money; it’s about the commitment. Since most of the colleges and universities eliminating loans and so on are in the elite crowd, perhaps their status automatically generates commitment from the families, but I think if someone comes up to you and hands you a diamond for free, you’re going to wonder about whether it’s stolen or a cubic zirconium. Without a price tag it’s hard to gauge the value of the item. And I don’t think it’s unfair to ask students to shoulder some kind of debt if they really want the kind of education that a college can give. Again, not anything crushing (save that for law school or med school) but enough to keep their eyes on the academic prize.

My other reservation about the rush to give away the store is that it only benefits a handful of students at a time and only at the very point of entry to college. All that money might be better used to strengthen the educational prospects of more students from disadvantaged backgrounds sooner, so there might be a greater number of first generation and underserved students in the application pool. Right now, colleges’ and universities’ largesse is passive, not active: It rewards those who have made it through the American educational system but hasn’t actively affected it. In a sense it validates a Darwinian process of survival of the fittest instead of attacking many of the inequities of the system at their root.

The economic might of the Harvards, Yales, Amhersts, and so on might be better used to inject life and hope into needy schools starting at 9th grade or even earlier, helping them build strong foundations for their students as they prepare for college. By taking a more active role in education, by considering themselves part of a K-16 educational continuum rather than the beneficiaries of the results of “educational selection,” colleges and universities might have a much greater and more significant effect on the education of America’s least served but not undertalented students. So two cheers for spending more of their endowments, but a third cheer in reserve for when colleges and universities really take up the task of improving American education where it needs it the most.