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Should college tuition be free at public institutions of higher learning? And how will that impact private colleges, including Catholic universities?

This topic was one of a multitude discussed during the annual meeting of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities Feb. 5-6.

“Free tuition isn’t free,” said Donald E. Heller. “Somebody has to pay – if not the student, someone else is picking up the cost of tuition, unless you can convince all your faculty and staff to work for free and your vendors to give you everything you need to run a university for free.”

Currently the vice president of operations at University of San Francisco, Calif., Heller addressed online attendees during a virtual session titled “The Free Tuition Movement and Catholic Higher Education.” Fellow presenters included Linda Lemur, president of Le Moyne College, a Jesuit college in Syracuse, N.Y., and Daniel J. Elsener, president of Marian University, a Franciscan college in Indianapolis, Ind.

The idea of free college is nothing new. It again came to the forefront, however, during Joe Biden’s U.S. presidential campaign and promises to support legislation that would make tuition free at public institutions of higher learning.

President Biden’s plan, drawn heavily from one proposed by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), would allow a family income of up to $125,000 for public four-year universities, with no income cap for attending community colleges.

Funding the plan, Heller explained, would be tax-based – one-third state and two-thirds federal cost share – for an estimated total of $683 billion over 11 years. The first year alone would cost $50 billion.

Ramifications of the free tuition program could be devastating – not only for taxpayers, but also for students who take advantage of the program, as well as private universities, which do not receive federal or state funding, the speakers said.

For example, LeMura cited her state’s Excelsior program, which provides free tuition at state and city institutions for families and individuals making up to $125,000 per year. LeMura detailed how instead of helping students, it has instead encouraged them to apply to schools that don’t have the track record of private institutions, and has caused enrollment at schools like Le Moyne to go down.

“[Excelsior] aids those that already pay a low amount of tuition, so poor students are not really benefitting as we might think they would,” she said. “It’s taking away from the private sector and putting some of these students into some institutions whose retention and graduation rates [are less successful].”

All three presenters advocated for other means to offer tuition assistance to lower-income families through use of larger Pell Grants, tuition assistance programs and scholarships.

Heller’s proposition is to put the same money into federal Pell Grants, which would allow the grants to double from the current maximum amount of $6,195 to $12,690.

“It would target the students whom we know really need the assistance,” he suggested, “and it would allow students to use the Pell at any institution in the country, including institutions like ours that have higher tuition rates.”

The state-based free tuition program in New York “is a stark departure from the bipartisan commitment to fund students based on the institution that really represents the best match for a student’s career aspirations,” LeMura explained. “A better option in our view would have been to take those resources and put them in the tuition assistance program – a clear, means-tested program that has helped educate thousands over the decades.”

Marian University gives scholarships to students who qualified for free and reduced lunches in their K-12 schools. Elsener said that the scholarship option, as well as following each student with counseling, have resulted in their graduating at a higher rate than the general population.

“If I would have told them ‘come here for free,’ I would have offered them a commodity, something not all that special that they didn’t have to invest in,” he said. “We raised money from foundations to put in systems and processes to coach and mentor these students.”

“It’s not just about getting in the door,” Elsener continued. “Our voices should be out in the public square. It’s about serving them well, not having them borrow money and drop out … Let’s be targeted, let’s make sure that whatever program we start can pass the next economic sobriety test.”