Should a college be free?


Should a college do away with tuition?

At algebraic geometry lunch last week, Ravi asked if a college with a sufficiently large endowment should do away with tuition. Since that was near the end of the hour, I didn’t get a chance to say what I wanted to say, so I’ll write it here instead.

Let me first clarify the question I am discussing. We are supposing here that there is only one college, which we will henceforth call College A, that can afford to do away with tuition, and that other colleges will continue to operate as they have done before. Further, we are supposing that College A would not do anything else with the superfluous money were they to continue charging tuition. Also, I’ll assume that College A is one of the very best colleges in the country, so the very best students are already likely to consider College A seriously.

Now, what would be the effects to College A? Students who would have to pay to go to other colleges would be able to go to College A for free, so that would be an extra incentive to go to College A for those who are qualified. So, top students would go to College A more frequently than before; this would make the quality of students at College A even higher than before, and the quality of students at other top colleges would go down a bit due to losing some of their top students to College A. Continuing in this line of reasoning, top professors would be likely to favor College A over other schools now that the pool of students is stronger than at other colleges. From College A’s entirely selfish perspective, this would appear to be a great idea!

However, I claim that the effect on society in general would be quite harmful. As a society, we have largely agreed that going to a top school is worth paying a lot of money for, and as a result, many people are willing to pay a lot to allow their kids to go to top schools. The existence of a free top school would make great strides in eroding this belief; some parents would insist that their kids go to College A or else a less prestigious but relatively inexpensive school. Other top colleges would thus suffer, as would very strong students who are for some reason or another not admitted to College A.

But that’s not the end of the story. Since College A would be so much more desirable than other top schools, competition for admission would increase dramatically. Already, the competition for top schools can be rather absurd, although people who are willing to play the game (e.g., not me) still generally manage to get admitted somewhere good. High school students, who are already frequently under tremendous stress from themselves, their families, and their peers to achieve highly, would be put under still more pressure.

So, a few people would benefit from College A’s tuition-free policy, but many more would suffer. While College A itself would see the rewards of such a policy, we must acknowledge that the benefits that College A would get do not compensate for the detriments of the rest of society. And what is a college’s role, if not to be helpful in educating society?

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About Simon

Hi. I'm Simon Rubinstein-Salzedo. I'm a mathematics postdoc at Dartmouth College. I'm also a musician; I play piano and cello, and I also sometimes compose music and study musicology. I also like to play chess and write calligraphy. This blog is a catalogue of some of my thoughts. I write them down so that I understand them better. But sometimes other people find them interesting as well, so I happily share them with my small corner of the world.
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2 Responses to Should a college be free?

  1. michiexile says:

    Continuing in this line of reasoning, top professors would be likely to favor College A over other schools now that the pool of students is stronger than at other colleges.
    Because the quality of students is the ONLY thing that ever goes into consideration in the academic job market…
    But that’s not the end of the story. Since College A would be so much more desirable than other top schools, competition for admission would increase dramatically. Already, the competition for top schools can be rather absurd, although people who are willing to play the game (e.g., not me) still generally manage to get admitted somewhere good. High school students, who are already frequently under tremendous stress from themselves, their families, and their peers to achieve highly, would be put under still more pressure.
    So, a few people would benefit from College A’s tuition-free policy, but many more would suffer. While College A itself would see the rewards of such a policy, we must acknowledge that the benefits that College A would get do not compensate for the detriments of the rest of society. And what is a college’s role, if not to be helpful in educating society?

    So this seems like most of the negatives are direct effects of your consideration of a single college moving to this policy, alone.
    And your argument seems to be that this one college would be so successful that its success is detrimental to society.
    SRSLY?!
    How about: “When the other top colleges see the effect of dropping tuition, they swiftly follow suit”
    Or also: “Consider Sweden…”
    Are you REALLY advocating keeping high tuitions in place as a means to educate society? Please tell me I’m misreading this.

    • Simon says:

      I was asking a very hypothetical and unrealistic question and seeing what the consequences would be. I was making no claims at all about what society should do in various circumstances that would be more likely to occur.

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