A higher education policy proposal made by the Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton would increase enrollment at public colleges and universities by 16% on average, if passed into legislation, with the largest area of growth occurring in open-access institutions.
Clinton’s free education proposal would eliminate tuition for students in state funded higher education facilities whose families earn less than $125,000 per year.
A policy analysis paper titled ‘The Enrollment Effects of Clinton’s Free College Proposal’ published by the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University found that such a policy would increase applications at flagship and public institutions while also creating greater selectivity of students during the application process, effectively turning prospective students away.
The authors, Anthony P. Carnewale, Martin Van Der Werf and Cary Lou, explain that this would consequently have a domino effect on student selectivity:
“The most selective colleges and universities would have their pick of the most qualified and highest achievement students from their expanded pool of applicants. Then, the mid-tier public universities would have their pick of the students who were well-qualified but couldn’t get into the flagships….[l]ess qualified candidates would get bumped down the chain into less-selective and open-access colleges…”
The authors warn that such a policy would provide the greatest incentive to students from upper-middle and higher income families and would see diversity at top tier public institutions negatively impacted due to the correlation between race/ethnicity and income.
Under the Clinton proposal, attitudes towards private universities would not change significantly, with a large number of students still choosing to pay sizeably for an education from a prestigious institution.
However, the Georgetown Center found that such a policy would be beneficial to those who had not previously considered attending a higher education institution. In fact, three quarters of the overall growth of public higher education enrollments would be directly attributable to the policy change, with a quarter of the growth a result of student movement from private institutions to public colleges.
Like all policy positions, the free education policy proposed by Clinton would have effects on other areas of the economy, including employment, and raises important questions regarding the impact on wages following a major shake up to higher education curricula.
As far as the authors can tell, an impact analysis of the policy on income has not been integrated.
Policies to increase access to higher education have been tried and tested over the years. As an example, the authors point to the introduction of the Middle Income Student Assistance Act of 1978, legislation that lifted restrictions to access of low-interest student loans. Following the implementation of the Act there was a significant increase in demand for student loans, and federal subsidies increased by a factor of 6 times over a period of 2 years.
“Outside that most prestigious cluster, many private institutions would likely be forced to become more elitist and less diverse as their dependence on students that could pay full tuition becomes even greater as price-sensitive students shift to public competitors”.
The full analysis has been made available online.