Will Free Tuition Increase the Number of College Graduates?

To increase the number of graduates, a growing number of pundits and politicians favor providing free tuition for students attending public colleges and universities. This proposal is flawed. The reality is that free tuition is unlikely to increase postsecondary educational attainment because quality, not cost, is the main obstacle to getting a college degree. Low-income students in the U.S. already pay, on average, no net tuition to attend community colleges—yet barely a third graduate.

There is also a risk in moving toward a tuition-free system for public colleges and universities: it would leave these institutions solely dependent on taxpayer dollars. If public budgets fail to keep pace with the increased demand and rising costs, colleges will be forced to limit the number of students they can accept, or sacrifice the quality of instruction, or both. Heightened competition for spaces could crowd out lower-income students from higher-quality public institutions that now accept them. There is even some evidence that free tuition would steer students toward lower-quality institutions.

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