A Typology of “Free Tuition”

To some degree, freeness is in the eye of the beholder. 

March 13, 2016

You would be forgiven, over the past 24 months or so, for growing ever more confused about when tuition is “free” and when it is not.  Can it be called “free tuition” if a student has to pay living expenses?  Is it only free tuition if only some students receive “free education”?   What about if we look at “net price” (i.e. tuition minus grants)?  It’s actually kind of tricky.

(Ok, yes, I know.  Education is never free; it always has to be paid for by someone.  But I’m talking about retail price here.)

By my count, there are at least nine different types of “free tuition” in the world.  And so, herewith, is a quick typology of free tuition systems around the world.

Type 1: Universal Zero Tuition with some living expenses covered

This is often what people think of when they think of free tuition, something like Scandinavia, where all universities are public, there is zero charge at the point of entrance, plus all students get some kind of maintenance grants. This is basically only the case in Scandinavia.

Type 2: Universal Zero Tuition with low need-based aid

Here you should think Scandinavia but with student assistance for living expenses only available to a select few or available at levels far too low to sustain students.  Germany is the classic example here, but Belgium and Switzerland fall into this category as well.  At the extreme, there is Greece, which has free tuition but effectively no student aid at all.  Parts of Francophone Africa look like this, too.

Type 3: Free Public Institutions with Significant Parallel Paying Systems

In some countries, one set of public institutions are free but another set of institutions charges significant fees.  Usually, the fee-charging institutions are private (e.g. Hungary, Senegal).  In France, though, there are both free universities and a parallel system of institutions – the Grandes Ecoles – which charge fees of over $10,000.  Some proposals in the United States for “free” community college usually fall under this definition of free tuition (though the more expansive version proposed by University of Wisconsin professor Sara Goldrick-Rab also has a healthy dose of Type 1 in there as well.

Type 4: Dual track” systems

In most former socialist countries and parts of Africa, students who do well on matriculation or university entrance examinations are allowed to attend for free, while everyone else is charged a fee.  And yes, this is as unfair as it sounds: invariably, it is kids from better-off families who get the free spots while poorer students end up paying.  But in many former socialist systems (Russia in particular), these arguments are waved away because at least performance-based free tuition can be defended as “objective”: aid based on income reminds too many people of the bad old days when people were prevented from attending university because of their social class.  A few countries – notably Poland and Romania - combine a “dual track” system in public institutions with a substantial fee-paying private sector (i.e. a type 3 system).

Type 5: Liar’s Free Tuition

In Ireland, “tuition” was abolished in the mid-1990s, but all sorts of other fees have crept in over the years so that mandatory charges are now in the thousands of euros.  In Ghana, tuition is constitutionally banned but all institutions have substantial “academic resource charges” which have somehow passed muster at the Constitutional Court.  One sometimes sees these countries listed as having “free” education but in practice it’s nothing of the kind

Type 6: Free at the Point of Service But Contributions to Be Collected Later

Australia does not charge fees, per se, but rather demands a “contribution” from graduates.  The maximum amount of the contribution sure looks like a fee - it is a set amount of money per year of study, based on one’s chosen field of study -, but if post-graduate income never rises above a certain level (currently about $50,000/year), the student never pays a cent.  Some might argue that a system with tuition but loans universally available (i.e. the United Kingdom) is indistinguishable from the Australian system since no one has to pay fees out of pocket, but others (most?)  would view that as a stretch.

Type 7: Free for all…Eventually.  Kind of.  Maybe.  But don’t tell anyone.

Easily the weirdest kind of free tuition is the type that exists in the Canadian provinces of Manitoba and Saskatchewan.  These places don’t claim to have free tuition, but through a combination of federal and provincial grants, tax credits and a truly ludicrous set of tax rebates available to anyone who stays within the province for a few years after graduation will actually receive more money in grants and tax rebates than they spend in tuition (assuming they finish on time). Deeply inefficient; do not try this at home, kids.

Type 8: Free for Some, Based on Income

Chile’s new system of “gratuidad” is not free for all.  Rather, the system simply waives fees for students at universities (but not yet colleges or polytechnics) whose family income is below the national median income (a system which benefits about 25-30% of the student body).  Similarly, tuition fees in England between 1998 and 2005 were variable according to family income, and those with family incomes below £20,000 paid no tuition at all.

Type 9: Net free for some, Based on income

This is the kind of free tuition that already exists widely in America and Canada: where tuition is charged to all, and need- or income-based grants and tax subsidies are available so that some students at least receive as much on non-repayable aid as they pay in tuition.  One of the reasons that “free community college” programs in Tennessee and Oregon have been so cheap to implement is that existing federal and state programs already paid out as much in grants as students paid in tuition; making college look “free” is thus often just a matter of packaging.  One big new initiative in this direction was taken in Ontario late last month, when the provincial government announced the amalgamation of a particularly clunky set of tax credits, loan remission programs and grants into one big up-front grant which for low-income students will completely offset tuition in most (but not all) university and college programs.  This is being described as a “free tuition” initiative but in fact there is no new money here, just some judicious re-allocation and re-packaging.


Obviously not everyone would agree that all nine of these systems should actually count as “free tuition”.  To some degree, freeness is in the eye of the beholder.  But it’s worth the effort to distinguish between these types so that policy discussions do end up at cross-purposes due to a misunderstanding of what “free” means.




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