There is an ongoing push for free tuition in the United States. It is being promoted as a way to help low-middle-income households, students of color, and other minorities attend college.
The free college philosophy consistently promotes equity, access, and financial support for families that cannot afford higher education costs. In addition, many of our politicians are supporting free tuition agendas based on the free tuition model of European nations’ success.
The following report by the American Enterprise Institution will give you an insight into how successful the European free tuition model has fared over the last 25 years.
The report evaluates the free tuition program of Ireland. However, the same problems, based on the report, are common in other European countries.
Here is the conclusion in the American Enterprise Institution's report.
Lessons for the US Advocates for free college in the US often point to international cases as evidence of the policy’s success. But the international experience with free college is diverse, complex, and hardly free of trade-offs. Ireland’s 25-year experience with the policy offers lessons for US policymakers that are often overlooked by those who point to international examples to make the case for free college.
While one virtue of free college is that it is supposed to reduce enrollment disparities by family income, Ireland has experienced only limited success on this front. That is because free college largely replaced existing grant aid for low-income students, much like it could in the US.
And the policy did not remove other barriers to access, such as test score requirements, selective admissions policies, and unaffordable non-tuition costs for rent and food for many students.
Meanwhile, the policy appears to have provided windfall benefits to students from more affluent families who had the resources to pay tuition—and the test scores to attend the most elite institutions—but now qualify for free tuition.
Adopting a similar policy in the US could repeat those outcomes if policymakers do not work to counteract them with a separate set of policies.
For example, Ireland shows that without changes in other policies, free college may not change enrollment disparities. It may even make them worse.
Policymakers may also need to emphasize mentoring and counseling services for low-income and first-generation students to help them through college—even if tuition is free.
Without these policies, the free-college thrust is likely to fail. Put another way, the Irish experience demonstrates that to be successful with respect to equity, a free-college regimen requires substantial additional resources and policies to counteract the regressive effects of free college that favor better-off students.
The Irish experience over a quarter century also shows that free college can actually work against the goal of increasing resources in the higher education system.
A successful free-college program requires large additional governmental expenditures, to not only replace the revenues from fees that students otherwise would have paid but also ensure that overall resources are sufficient to pay for a quality education for a large share of the population.
But when budget pressures arise, policymakers can still cut funding for universities even if tuition is free.
That is exactly what happened in Ireland. Historically, colleges and universities in the US have raised tuition to offset such cuts. In Ireland, that is not an option. And institutions have endured long periods in which per-student resources declined sharply, year after year. Many in the country say this has reduced educational quality.
It also makes it much harder for institutions to offer the types of mentoring and support services that have been shown to help low-income and first-generation students through college.
These are indeed the very services Irish institutions cut when their budgets were under pressure.
Ireland illustrates that the free-college agenda is not a panacea for the problems that America faces in its higher education system. Rather, Ireland demonstrates that a country can still struggle with many of the same higher education challenges as the US, despite having free tuition and low fees set by the government.
Moreover, the Irish experience teaches us that without adequate funding and interventions to counteract the regressive effects of free college, the policy risks making equity and quality issues in the US higher education system worse rather than better.