Eliminating Public College Tuition would Boost Enrollment

on October 12, 2016

A study by the Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) at Georgetown University estimates that eliminating public college tuition for low- and middle-income would increase enrollment at 2-year and 4-year public colleges. CEW says that the use of the word “free” would have a much greater impact than simple reductions in college costs or increases in gift aid.

CEW estimates that enrollment would increase by 16 percent (9 percent to 22 percent) at public colleges and universities, with an increase of 23 percent (13 percent to 31 percent) at community colleges. The report cites the 20 percent to 25 increase in community college enrollment in Tennessee that is attributable to the Tennessee Promise program. Three-quarters of the growth will be from new students, with the rest coming from an 11 percent decline (7 percent to 15 percent at private non-profit colleges.

The most selective public and private non-profit institutions are unlikely to be affected much, in part because of limited capacity for increased enrollment at the most selective public colleges.

The number of Bachelor’s degree recipients per year would likely increase by several hundred thousand, once the enrollment changes stabilized. This would have a big impact on the economy.

The CEW report does not consider the potential decline in enrollment at private for-profit colleges, which are often among the most expensive programs. It is very hard to compete with “free”, so for-profit colleges might see significant declines in enrollment as prospective students shift to community colleges and public 4-year colleges.

However, the likelihood of Hillary Clinton’s free public tuition proposal being implemented if she is elected is low, because it not only requires the cooperation of Congress, but also the cooperation of state legislatures. The proposal is unlikely to be supported by a 60 percent supermajority in the Senate. The only way to bypass the need for a supermajority is a budget reconciliation bill, which must cut the budget deficit. That will be a challenge to the free tuition proposal’s high price tag.

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