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If Public Universities Offer Free Tuition, Who Will Be Left Behind?


Hillary Clinton wants to address a big problem in America: the rising cost of college. The Democratic presidential nominee is proposing free tuition for students attending in-state public institutions.

But Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, is concerned about the number of poor students who would not be included in Clinton’s plan. That’s because many of them attend small private colleges and universities like Trinity.

Trinity Washington University's Pat McGuire

Trinity Washington University president Pat McGuire

“This notion that the federal government will suddenly set up this debt-free college system only supporting students going to public universities belies the fact that many, many low-income students of color who have lived on the margins do far better in small, private colleges where they get a lot of attention,” McGuire tells us. “We cannot set up this mythology that public schools do all the work, and private schools only serve elites.”

That perspective is shared by Catharine Hill, who until this month headed Vassar, a private college in New York. During her tenure, Hill actively recruited poor students and instituted a need-blind admissions policy. She says the discussion around free tuition should involve both public and private institutions.

Catharine Bond Hill, former president of Vassar College

Vassar College’s former president, Catharine Hill

McGuire and Hill speak with Tiny Spark about large philanthropic gifts to higher education, how inequality in higher ed reflects broader inequality in America, and lessons on race and diversity when it comes to college access.

Additional Resources

Washington Post: The Devoted: She spent her life transforming Trinity. So where does Pat McGuire — and the university she rebuilt — go from here?

Education Writers Association: Reporter Q&A with Vassar College President Catharine Bond Hill

NYT Mag: Is College Tuition Really Too High? The answer depends on what you mean by college.

Buzzfeed: How Poor And Minority Students Are Shortchanged By Public Universities

Washington Post: The continuing myth of free college

TIME: Should Wealthy Colleges Be Forced to Spend More of Their Money on Financial Aid?

(Photo credits: Trinity Washington University and Vassar College/John Abbott)

1 Comment

  1. Zach

    Free tuition? Forget that! Future college students can take on debt and pay for it for the rest of their lives like the rest of us suckers!! A huge group which would be left behind by a free tuition plan are the millions of people that under the existing less than perfect system have taken on and then paid down, or are still paying down, their debt at the sacrifice of at least several, if not many, years of their income and life. A free tuition plan would ensure that the millions who had to pay their debt, and continue to have to, are in an even more disadvantageous position overall, leaving them further behind from the hole they are still struggling to get out of! Any plan should address the issue for all, not just for future students at further expense to past and current students.

    The rising cost of college in America is a critical issue that effects and will continue to effect most if not all Americans, so I commend any politician for trying to raise and address the issue. The subject sadly gets little to no attention despite how significant it is. However, a plan that addresses the underlying problem and attempts to improve the system rather than more or less establish a subsystem within the existing system, would be more advantageous and help more people overall. If a presidential nominee really wants to address rising costs of tuition, perhaps a good place to start would be to address why federal student loans impose interest rates of up to 8.5 percent, significantly increasing the overall cost of college for any student who must borrow to afford an education, especially poorer students who must fully fund their education via loans. Such rates ensure that the true cost of college is even far more than what the actual cost of tuition is. This is especially concerning when interest rates are presently so low. And, it may lead many to ask why the federal government is implementing student loans to seemingly achieve profits rather than to ensure equitable educational opportunity for all. I hope the cost of college will actually be addressed by the next administration.

    A number of other foreseeable potential issues I will refrain from going into may include:

    1. At best, the free tuition plan is a concept idea which has not been sufficiently studied and discussed to determine if it could actually be a viable plan. At worst, it is simply a campaign strategy to secure the youth vote without any chance of ever materializing or intention of doing so.
    2. The plan, even if sufficiently studied and an implementation plan was in place, is likely unrealistic given the current state of political affairs in the U.S.
    3. The plan would, over time, significantly alter the educational system in the U.S. in unknown and unpredictable manners. That may be good, it may be bad. We simply don’t know, but should before pursuing it.
    4. Unless enrollment numbers for free tuition students were capped, public universities would require substantially more funding. Has a funding strategy been considered? Would it come at the expense of further U.S. government revenue, taxes, etc. at the cost of all U.S. taxpayers?
    5. Schools can only take so many students. The plan would inevitably push competition for in-state public institutions to such an exceptionally high level that it would drive out many still capable students who do not make the cut and who would then be forced to go to more expensive and/or lower level colleges, further limiting or hindering their futures.
    6. Public education as it exists today below the university level is not without significant and numerous imperfections. What makes us believe that the federal government becoming more involved in university level education would lead to a different result from the complications which have led to a U.S. educational system that is certainly not the top in the world?
    7. Many American may not support what they may perceive to be socialized education.

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