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Free Tuition Policies Don't Guarantee Access

May 16, 2018

Free tuition policies are rooted in strong philosophical and social traditions but do not necessarily lead to increased access or student success, according to a new paper in the journal Higher Education Policy titled “There Is No Such Thing as Free Higher Education: A Global Perspective on the (Many) Realities of Free Systems.”

Ariane de Gayardon, a senior research associate at the Centre for Global Higher Education at University College London, looked at free tuition policies across a variety of countries. She found that free tuition policies take different forms in different countries, and that the majority of countries with free tuition policies have various “hidden cost-sharing mechanisms to alleviate the cost borne by governments.” These include charging nontuition fees, establishing “dual tracks” in which some students study for free and others pay tuition, and limiting the number of fully subsidized seats available. De Gayardon found that only a few countries -- including Argentina, Cuba, Finland, Germany and Norway -- offer a combination of open access and tuition-free higher education.

De Gayardon found that participation rates vary considerably across countries with free tuition systems, as do graduation rates. “What this tells us is that free higher education alone, whatever form it takes, does not seem to be generating systems that are consistently good at widening participation and guaranteeing success for all," she wrote. "In that sense, free higher education should not be considered a miracle solution: it can only succeed, like other cost-sharing policies, if appropriately supported by access-specific policies -- such as carefully designed financial aid policies, improved quality in the secondary system, remediation courses, or affirmative action quotas.”


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