The End of Free College in England

It seems to have been a largely pro-education, egalitarian development, at least according to a new research paper by Richard Murphy, Judith Scott-Clayton, and Gillian Wyness:

Despite increasing financial pressures on higher education systems throughout the world, many governments remain resolutely opposed to the introduction of tuition fees, and some countries and states where tuition fees have been long established are now reconsidering free higher education. This paper examines the consequences of charging tuition fees on university quality, enrollments, and equity. To do so, we study the English higher education system which has, in just two decades, moved from a free college system to one in which tuition fees are among the highest in the world. Our findings suggest that England’s shift has resulted in increased funding per head, rising enrollments, and a narrowing of the participation gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students. In contrast to other systems with high tuition fees, the English system is distinct in that its income-contingent loan system keeps university free at the point of entry, and provides students with comparatively generous assistance for living expenses. We conclude that tuition fees, at least in the English case supported their goals of increasing quality, quantity, and equity in higher education.

I have long been of the view that free tuition for U.S. state schools would be an educational disaster.


Absolutely. I have experience living in Europe, Germany in particular and can tell you the low/no tuition is absolutely a disaster and those on the left should be against it because if anything it reinforces a sort of class system. In places like Germany where tuition is free one winds up with absurd credential inflation to the point where a PhD is deemed necessary for any decently high position. And of course why not? There are no financial barriers for those who can to spend their entire 20s in school collecting credentials.

Solid comment, +1

I live in Austria, and I approve this message.

What approach would you prefer to ensure that capable but poorer students are still able to obtain at least bachelors level education? A US-style loans guarantee program?

Also, maybe the quality of education is not as good as it could be, but is it on balance bad that Germany produces PhDs who wouldn't pursue that education if not for the tuition help? How far are from optimal is this overeducated workforce?

It makes it impossible for someone who needs a job at age 21 to ever get a professional position.

As if the Duale Hoschschule system does not exist. Which is true, at least in English speaking countries.

Some information - 'Baden-Wuerttemberg Cooperative State University (Duale Hochschule Baden-Württemberg / DHBW ) is the first higher education institution in Germany which combines on-the-job training and academic studies and, therefore, achieves a close integration of theory and practice, both being components of cooperative education. With around 34,000 enrolled students, over 9,000 partner companies and more than 145,000 graduates, DHBW counts as one of the largest higher education institutions in the German Federal State of Baden-Wuerttemberg.'

However, this type of school (previously called a Berufsakademie) is around 25 years old in its original form, and its current form, which includes German wide recognition of such a degree, is maybe a dozen years old. The concept is pretty straightforward - a student needs to be accepted to the school, and also needs to find an employer that works with the school (SAP, for example, in this region). You study for three months, and then work for three months - with salary, vacation time, etc. After completing your degree, the odds of you becoming an employee at that company are quite good, assuming you have successfully completed your studies and were a good employee in the eyes of your employer.

Not a way to earn a PhD, though. And oddly enough, DH students in this region seem to be favored over a student with a 'normal' university degree in a lot of cases, if only because they have already been working at a company for years.

"The concept is pretty straightforward – a student needs to be accepted to the school, and also needs to find an employer that works with the school (SAP, for example, in this region). You study for three months, and then work for three months – with salary, vacation time, etc. After completing your degree, the odds of you becoming an employee at that company are quite good."

That's almost an exact description of the educational model at Kettering University in Michigan:

But then you are sort of stuck with that company, are you not? What if you decide you want to go work for someone else?

Yeah you're stuck with that company from what I have seen. A lot of these types of companies are also located in sh*tholes too so if you're a young person who wants to move to some more dynamic city you can't - you're stuck in some middle-of-nowhere village working for one of these companies. From one perspective it's fine, they have useful skills and jobs. But as I say the insidiousness of this kind credential inflation is that if you don't get the right credentials, which involves spending roughly a decade in higher education, you've automatically put severe restrictions on yourself.
As I said I have known people who did the work-study thing, who did the apprenticeship thing and they STILL wound up doing a PhD (into there mid 30s) because they didn't want to stay stuck. This system is only good if you are totally content to stay in your hometown village.

It's one reason I think in Germany, despite all its highly trained technical PhDs, all the major companies are like a century old. They don't create any new major businesses because (well there are other reasons I'm sure) its expected that anyone with any kind of talent and ambition needs to go into a doctoral program straight-away and stay there.

Look this wasn't supposed to get into Germany bashing, but its the example I have experienced where they have free tuition. I also know that part of the credentialism there is their own culture-specific title fetishizing. But as someone who has spent quite a lot of time there, I am someone who is skeptical of the value of higher education and thinks it needs way less investment not more.

Why is that--can't they go to school part time?

Simple answer - no.

Complicated answer - combining studies and work allows employers a chance to get trained employees who are qualified in several senses of the word. Most particularly that they have shown their ability in the only thing that an employer cares about - the job they will be doing.

Of course, different parts of Germany are different - Baden-Württemberg stands out in a number of ways. Like this, for example - 'Although Baden-Württemberg has relatively few natural resources compared to other regions of Germany, the state is among the most prosperous and wealthiest regions in Europe with a generally low unemployment rate historically. A number of well-known enterprises are headquartered in the state, for example Daimler AG, Porsche, Robert Bosch GmbH (automobile industry), Carl Zeiss AG (optics), and SAP SE (largest software enterprise in Europe) and Heidelberger Druckmaschinen (precision mechanical engineering). In spite of this, Baden-Württemberg's economy is dominated by small and medium-sized enterprises.'

I'm confused. You say no, and then give a reason, which if anything, suggests they can: combining studies and work allows employers a chance to get trained employees who are qualified in several senses of the word. That suggests not only is there no reason you can't go part time, but that employers prefer it. Specifically, an employer would rather take someone who has been working 40 hours a week for a decade and managed to get a PhD by taking 1 class a semester over a 25-27 y/o PhD student with no work experience?

Do they want to go to school part time while working? I'm sure some of them want to enjoy life. Or have children.

"but is it on balance bad that Germany produces PhDs who wouldn’t pursue that education if not for the tuition help"

Yeah because it fuels a status game where anyone who wants decent career advancement also needs to pursue a PhD. I think fundamentally the entire education system is flawed, free college is not a panacea, it's a band-aid solution, and I think even if you look at it from a left perspective it's fundamentally unfair. In Germany you have a situation whereby these PhD students have their lifestyle throughout their 20s and in many, many cases well into their 30s, financed by the taxpayers who are actually working. Then once the PhD student finishes their degree they can parachute into top positions within firms, despite having little experience outside academia, whereas the people who had been supporting them this entire time find themselves quickly reaching a glass ceiling due to lacking the PhD credential.

Credentialism is also a problem in the US, I think it's a fundamental problem that often gets overlooked because most policy makers, economists, etc. are themselves highly credentialed and refuse to admit that education is mostly signalling. It's extremely damaging, people here want to blame the students for pursuing too many degrees but employers are very much to blame in fueling this development with the ever increasing ridiculous HR recruitment requirements. Germany and much of tuition-free Europe is simply further along the credential inflation path.

By the way the fact that my beliefs on this are shaped by my experience in Germany also inoculates me from another major educational fantasy one comes across on this blog that going into skilled trades is a good alternative to the university path. Germany has an excellent skilled-trades apprenticeship program and skilled trades are heavily encouraged there, and yet I know people who went through the apprenticeship education only to find themselves pursuing a doctoral degree in their 30s because career and pay prospects in the skilled trades have dimmed .

Credential inflation and corporate HR-driven requirements inflation is a serious and overlooked problem, I do not see free college as a solution to this it will only accelerate the trend. The only solution I see is somehow a situation must be created whereby employers ability to demand these credentials is reduced, where they need workers badly enough that they will not have the luxury of HR snobbery.

Another fundamental problem is too much focus on the process, i.e. the years spent at college, and not enough focus on the outcome.

One solution is to mandate the separation of study and certification. At high school everyone does the same SATs: we don't consider a 700-SAT score from Podunk High to be worth less than a 700 from Stuyvesant. But a degree from Harvard is worth more than one from the New England Institute of Art (ranked worst in the country). If all students had the opportunity to take Harvard's exams, or some kind of advanced SAT, the quality of university education would quickly improve.

That's a really good idea especially for STEM subjects where I believe there is a massive difference between the instructional and course content quality between the upper and lower tier institutions.

I'm not sure you can tell so much from a test. A test for programming in Python might reveal how mmuch of the language syntax and features you've memorized, but not whether you are a skilled writer of programs. A test for an EE might reveal you can analyze and predict the behavior of a circuit, but not whether you can design a simple efficient circuit from scratch. Actually posing a problem to solve like writing a nontrivial program could take days for testing, and how would you evaluate the result?

Maybe AI can do something here. Interaction with an AI might allow probing the subject's ability in some reasonable amount of time, like you might get in a job interview.

Mark Thorson,

We already have standardized tests which last several days: each state's bar exam for lawyers. The bar exam takes two or three days (depending on the state). It consists of both essays and multiple-choice questions.

The bar exam isn't perfect, because the ABA (American Bar Association) usually demand that candidates have studied at an ABA-approved law school. Some states even mandate a minimum number of hours of lessons: a perfect example of focusing on the process, not the outcome.

Frankly, I think a PhD requirement for a "decent career advancement" (I assume we're talking high 100ks and above?) isn't the worst thing. Its better then requiring political connections through an old boys club which is largely what we have now. While surely there's overlap between the two, at least you're requiring some work (and hopefully qualifications), and it makes it possible for the truly smart not as lucky individuals to take classes part time to catch up

"I assume we’re talking high 100ks and above?"

In the context of Germany I would say even earning 70K or above.

Waste of time and resources. Making hiring decisions at Morgan Stanley based on who was in what fraternity for four years as an undergrad at Penn is a lot easier than who spent seven years in higher education trying to get a PhD.

For describing 100K+ jobs, this is not remotely true currently.

I agree to some extent. If anything like US PhD programs, completing an advanced degree (in a reasonable amount of time) demonstrates a minimal level of competence as well as the ability to grind through challenging long-term projects. For many jobs, that is a good indicator of how one might perform.

In the USA, disparate-impact precedent can make employers reluctant to test job candidates. Practically any exam can be shown to have disparate impact, and when challenged employers must prove that the test is closely related to job requirements.

This is one of those areas where sometimes "the process is the punishment"; that is, even if you win the legal expenses (and often negative publicity) can be brutal.

So, the fallback (esp. for entry-level positions) remains credentialism (plus whatever signalling is provided by having a degree from a prestigious school). Credentials may not be as good a measure of quality as exams, but they remain a safer harbor.

I do agree credentialism is a major factor for entry level and early career positions, but what about civil service exams? Wouldn't that be a prime target for this disparate impact claim, yet they persist albeit less prevalent than in the past.

Why don't the firms choose the smartest people with the most potential, rather than parachuting PhDs who happen to have rich parents? The labor market still works there, right?

Thanks for your insight, by the way.

'PhD is deemed necessary for any decently high position'

Makes one wonder how Jürgen Schrempp managed to be the chairman of Daimler - Not to mention his successor, Herbert Zetsche - Of course, it is true that both of them have engineering degrees, though Schrempp's was acquired after his being educated as a car mechanic.

Roughly the same applies to the current head of VW, who first trained as a tool maker, then acquired a (lower quality, from a 'Fachhiochschule' which is designated by a 'FH' following his degree) degree in IT, and BMW's current head, who also has an engineering degree.

Almost as if the entire German auto industry prefers engineers, and not PhDs for its highest positions.

And the Mittelstand tends to care a lot less about a PhD than even the car industry.

"Almost as if the entire German auto industry prefers engineers, and not PhDs for its highest positions"

Why do you think those things are mutually exclusive? A PhD in Engineering is a basic requirement to get any even remotely high position at a major German car company. I know several Germans who did their engineering PhDs only for the purpose of being able to get a management position at a car company (I can't imagine this being the case at an American car company). Dieter Zetsche has a PhD by the way I don't know what you are talking about. Sometimes the company pays for the PhD and you do it alongside your work but it just goes to show how inane that is because you are already doing the job and yet the credential or title is so important that you should take time out to do it.

Also it's called credential INFLATION so we should expect the credential level to increase overtime, citing corporate leaders from the past doesn't make much sense because the credential bar was naturally lower in the past. Today in European countries such as Germany having just a bachelor's degree means you're a loser, a masters degree is the absolute basic requirement for any professional career, PhD is required for real advancement.

'A PhD in Engineering is a basic requirement to get any even remotely high position at a major German car company.'

All of the people - with one exception - mentioned above are 'Diplom' X - this is basically the equivalent of a BS/MS (pretty much sits in the middle). None of them are PhDs, not to mention that one of them has an 'inferior' Diplom, being from a Fachhochschule, which is why his Diplom must be legally marked with a '(FH)'.

But you are right about Zeschke - I did not read far enough in Wikipedia - '... mit dem Abschluss als Diplomingenieur. Seit 1976 war er im Forschungsbereich der damaligen Daimler-Benz AG tätig. 1981 wurde er Assistent der Entwicklungsleitung im Geschäftsbereich Nutzfahrzeuge und im Jahre 1982 wurde Zetsche an der Gesamthochschule Paderborn, der heutigen Universität Paderborn, zum Doktor der Ingenieurswissenschaften promoviert.' I simply saw the Diplomingenieur, then that he started working at Daimler, and skipped the rest.

There is no question that credentials are important in Germany, and the respect accorded to a PhD is notable - for example, PhDs are automatically paid more, in a fairly clear way (think 10% straight off).

'and yet the credential or title is so important that you should take time out to do it'

We can argue about the philosophy of education, and whether it is a status game, but I know several military officers who took the time to get further degrees, including here - To the extent that education actually involves the acquisition of knowledge, and one is expected to have that knowledge (think a naval officer in a nuclear setting), it is the knowledge that is important, with the credential or title simply being proof that the knowledge was acquired.

'citing corporate leaders from the past'

Or the present, as in the case of VW and BMW.

'Today in European countries such as Germany having just a bachelor’s degree means you’re a loser'

Depends - the Mittelstand really doesn't seem to care all that much. And a DH degree is 'lower' in status than a bachelor's, and yet considered a better credential, at least for many companies in this region.

'a masters degree is the absolute basic requirement for any professional career'

I'm guessing that we just might be defining 'professional career' differently - including the fact that a company prefers to employ a 'Geprüfter Buchhalter' for their accounting department over someone with a master's degree (of course, with both you will go further). A credential that costs more than 5 years of going to a German university, by the way. But yes, it is quite possible that a 'Niete in Nadelstreifen' will be the one in charge of the accounting department.

'PhD is required for real advancement.'

Much of the Mittelstand is family owned - there is only one thing required for 'real advancement' in that context, and it is not a PhD.

Nothing you've said here debunks my position. Here's a comparison: it's absolutely possible for someone with a bachelors degree in the US to get a job doing software engineering at Google or Amazon. I know people who have worked at Google and "just" have a bachelors degree in CS. Yeah you need to be pretty good, but that's about skills and ability, you don't need to invest years and years jumping through academic hoops to get there. I know people who do embedded systems programming at Ford and General Motors and they "just" have bachelors degrees in engineering. I am completely aware that there are many positions at Google requiring a specialized technical background where the company deems a PhD or Masters necessary but its far from impossible to get to these kind of companies without grad school in the US.

Compare that to Germany where the credential inflation is rampant. You mention the Mittelstand companies and the Duale Hochschule, but this is my point. If you don't go the Masters/PhD route there you have right off the bat completely excluded yourself from working for the upper tier of companies - the few companies in that country that actually pay good salaries. You cannot go to BMW and get an engineering job without at LEAST a Masters degree. It would be basically unthinkable. Tonnes of American university graduates with bachelors degrees in engineering get jobs at Ford and GM. The equivalent German student needs to spend 5 or 6 years in higher education to have a shot a the same type of job as a US student can get after 4 years.
Those CEOs you mentioned are old guys, if they were starting their careers nowadays in Germany they would have gotten nowhere with those credentials.

+1 @prior--good, interesting series of comments here.

Two people. Great anecdata.

Yup. Reminds me of unpaid internships as a point of entry for certain professions.
The only people who can afford to live in New York or San Francisco on an unpaid internship are people with rich families supporting them.

"Yup. Reminds me of unpaid internships as a point of entry for certain professions. The only people who can afford to live in New York or San Francisco on an unpaid internship are people with rich families supporting them."


I don't like this practice either, but I suspect it's more limited than it seems. Perhaps we ban unpaid internships?

Not sure I see the class ramifications so clearly. The wealthy can afford to get as much schooling as they want regardless of its expense. Is it logical to assume that the cost of PhD programs is currently a significant deterrent to those among the wealthy who want to pursue them, to the extent that many more wealthy people would pursue PhD programs if those costs were eliminated?

No I mean credential inflation harms those who don't manage to get the credential for whatever reason. Not everyone can invest 10 years in higher education even if the direct tuition costs are eliminated, and not everyone has the inclination to spend 10 years in a purely academic environment. Its not that the wealthy will consume more education but eliminating tuition will force more people at the margins to consume more education - maybe now the more middle class kid wouldn't opt for the Masters or PhD but eliminating tuition might cause them to, but there will be those that can't afford the additional years of schooling - because their parents cannot support rent or whatever other reason. But as more people acquire these credentials corporate HR departments start upping the requirements for jobs and the people who can't get the credential are hurt even if this credential is not actually that important to actually do the job. Which I believe is the case for the most part.

Yes, it just switches the filtering process from "those who can afford the tuition", to "those whose parents can afford to support them for 10 years of college" .
At least with the former, you can get loans. With the latter, nobody's going to lend you money to cover your living expenses for 10 years.

I mean it also doubly screws over the people who didn't go on to get a PhD because they go to work and need to pay higher taxes to support this no tuition and then they get screwed again because they get this glass ceiling placed over them where the good positions are reserved for those who went to grad school.

The left is never willing to consider the plight of people who can't get into a PhD program when they talk about the egalitarianism of their education proposals. They only get around to caring afterwards. This is fundamentally because they are more or less constitutionally incapable of recognizing that there is a finite pool of resources and every time you allocate more of something to one group, everyone else will get less.

Yeah, it creates a class sorting effect, and then forces the lower-class people to subsidize the education of the higher-class people.

There might be a class component, but even more strongly they'll be a personality type component. This will automatically select for people that tend to enjoy (or tolerate) academia more than the median. And since the Left tends to control academia, it will tend to also sort out those who don't agree with (or hide their disagreement to) a Left wing point of view.

For the Left, credentialism of this type increases their power by providing a positive filter for like minded individuals.

Not everyone can invest 10 years in higher education even if the direct tuition costs are eliminated,

As we speak, mean time expended is 3.1 years f/t enrollment and 1.9 years p/t enrollment . That includes community college and commercial schools which specialize in distance learning.

The share of those between their 18th and 25th birthday who are employed at any given time varies throughout the year but averages 55%. About 87% of those employed in these age groups are employed f/t.

"10 years in school" is characteristic of those who acquire research doctorates and encompasses their undergraduate and graduate study. A comfortable majority of doctoral degrees awarded (> 70%) are professional credentials which encompass 85-135 credit-hours of study (though medical doctorates are longer). Not all of these require a BA beforehand. About 1.2% of a typical age cohort will acquire a research doctorate at current rates.

Aren't you making a strong argument for affordable student housing and living expenses, then? This would help to eliminate the entire component of wealth as a determination of educational attainment.

No. I am against the idea that education attainment should be so entrenched as a means of determining income. I think far too much weight is put on educational attainment as I see formal education as mostly signalling with only a little bit of useful skills learned. Investing so much money into it just reinforces a bad social structure. The problem is that credential inflation cannot now be easily ratcheted down so it is difficult to know what to do.

There are a lot of people who will go to college just so they can get the "affordable" living expenses without having to work, in that case.

At some point you have to consider both the expense involved and the incentives that subsidizing absolutely everything will present.

I don't think there is a moral hazard problem there, that's not the issue. To a certain point having an educated population probably produces large social benefits but when we start looking at higher education it's mostly signalling and the benefits of the signal are reaped privately. Its hard for me to see why the general population needs to pay to boost someone else's earnings and simultaneously inhibit their own potential earnings by creating credential-based glass ceilings. I guess the argument is the need to people with specialized skills to fill specific technical needs, but I can tell you from what I've seen that's not what is happening. There ends up being a glut of these people and the lion's share go on to management positions. Does society need to invest so much to pump out more hyper-credentialed managers and corporate executives?

Unfortunately the system is under some attack currently, especially from Labour.

A few things seem to have been handled especially badly.

One is the creation of a special class of student debt which basically acts like a graduate tax. It works at its purpose, but graduates just see these horrific nominal debt numbers and that causes all sorts of practical and psychological issues.

The second is the way that debt is managed. The student loans system is horribly inefficient, and acts in very shady ways. For example, you make payments through the tax system all year, and then it only gets deducted at the end. And they can never tell you an accurate balance because HMRC and Student Loans don't talk more often than annually.

The third is the interest rate, which is basically inflation-plus. How many other people in the UK are paying ~6% on their loans?! Certainly not the baby boomers with their free education and 1% mortgages tucked away already.

The fourth is that universities themselves have no skin in the game. Someone studying engineering at Imperial College is far more employable, and likely to pay their loan back, than someone studying media at London Metropolitan. But the university gets to sell the course and receive the same funding even though that second student will cost taxpayers way more and deliver less value.

Yes the system is more fair and successful, but it still has problems and sustainability is a problem.

It's a very fair point that switching from no tuition to tuition is an inter-generational wealth transfer and I think young people have a right to complain about it. Overall I think the entire way of doing education is wrong and is way more of a status game than about gaining actually useful skills -and this, in my mind, absolutely applies to the supposedly "useful" field as well. Throwing the doors open allows for the continued existence of a number of low quality institutions (although admittedly even in countries that charge tuition like the US and Canada there are large numbers of low quality schools) and adds fuel to the status game fire.

I don't think IBR is an inter-generational transfer though. You don't pay up front, but you pay during your working career based on ability to pay. And during this time you are paying back your loan, that is exactly when you would have been paying taxes to cover the free tuition of the next group of students. The only additional cost is interest on the debt. It can easily be arranged to run a surplus in the education fund for a 10 yr period funded through general taxation if you really want to worry about the generational fairness issue.

Most of the griping about intergenerational fairness comes from the fact that cities have forgotten how to build cheap housing and European companies have become so sclerotic that you can't get a real position until your 30s. So young people are getting screwed. But by all means, let's go for more government intervention. That will fix the problem.

Yes, those problems exist. I'd say the fourth one is the worst. A lot of not-too-bright students are still being encouraged to get a (social science) degree which is demonstrably worthless to them at a large opportunity cost. (Mind you, the situation is better than it was - a least some of the dregs are sufficiently discouraged by the cost to go away and do something more valuable with their lives.)

The government should consider scrapping loans for broad classes of (social science) degree and institutions based on currently published data on employment and salaries.

Why not simply let the universities be paid the loan payments, not up front?

Imperial would have no difficulty getting a bank to give them the £9000 up front if they wanted the cash flow, but the Cornwell College of Basketweaving would have to sell the debt at a discount.

English Boomers have 1% mortgages? Was that a government-set rate or something?

Nope: just a reflection of market rates as they respond to the central bank's whims.

That's how much a low LTV remortgage costs on a 2yr variable rate mortgage, give or take.

Most U.K. mortgages are short-term variable rate. Most boomer owners have low LTVs.

Free high school hasn't made people wiser, why would free college? When people know they have to pay their tuition back, they study business instead of gender studies and basket-weaving.

If philosophy is useful, we'd study it in high school, instead of wasting time with shakespeare.

Roughly a quarter of American students finish with business degrees. Their average earnings are in fact lower than many social science degrees. But keep pontificating.

"Their average earnings are in fact lower than many social science degrees."

You're cherry picking the data. The median business degree graduate makes substantially more than the median social science degree graduate.
Business = $52,236 Social Sciences = $46,585

That being said, it's noteworthy that the lowest on this chart is:

Education = $34,891

And the highest is:

Engineering = $64,891

Just out of curiosity, but what are their earnings 5-10 years after graduation?

That's a good question and I don't know the answer. Also, on factor that muddles the analysis is the type of job. Clearly Education majors gravitate towards public sector jobs with a large benefit package. So, if you were to look at total compensation, the ranking might change.

20 years net ROI

All majors $41,880

All technical (engineering,computer science, IT) $55,687

All business $46,835

All social sciences/humanities/ liberal arts/science $41,447

All health sciences $44,372

Go to the last page. You have to go to the second column to get to a humanities major.

"Free high school hasn’t made people wiser"--source please?

I studied philosophy and classical greek in high school.
Not sure what your point is.

Not at Ballou you didn't.

they study business instead of gender studies and basket-weaving.

Again, of the 1.86 million baccalaureate degrees awarded each year in this country, fewer than 1,400 are awarded in women's studies. Black studies claim 600-odd majors and hispanic studies 400-odd. The victimology programs are patronage for faculty members. Very few students are foolish enough to major in them. Philosophy's a venerable discipline. About 0.4% of all baccalaureate degrees are awarded in philosophy. About half that share are awarded in comparative religion. As for other academic and artistic disciplines, the share's as follows: English (2.7%), foreign languages (1.1%), history (1.7%), non-quantitative social sciences (approx 5%), performing and studio arts (approx 5%), omnibus 'liberal arts', interdisciplinary programs &c (3%). Most follow vocational courses of study and a great many who do not are studying mathematics, natural sciences, or quantitative social sciences.

Agreed, the issue here isn't that people are "studying victimology".

The issue that they are studying "business administration" or "psychology" at a tier 3 institution but graduate without actually learning anything useful.

I know plenty of business admin majors who are barely qualified to be assistant managers at a Verizon store.

If college is all about the signaling, why is the goal of increased HE intakes a socially desirable one?

We've created a system where social advancement is too heavily tied to formal education and the acquisition of credentials from universities. Policy makers see this but then think they can "lift all boats" by sending more people to university. More cynically it could be because policy makers know they'd have a big unemployment problem of their hands if they didn't find something for young people to spend 4-6 years occupying themselves with.


To be fair some (many?) policy makers, especially in Labour, genuinely believe HE widely boosts human capital. They don't even understand what signalling is.

I mean, if you believe all peoples have the same values, intelligence and personality doesn't matter, and social conditioning is key, then HE has to be variable creating value, right?

Policy makers tend to be people who have acquired many academic credentials, they do not want to believe that they did it all just for signalling.

Yes. Also, they don't want to admit that their jobs aren't really doing genuinely essential, useful things.
Often, the higher up the credential ladder you go, the more disconnected your work is from the production of genuine value. Policy makers probably think they are doing useful work on an abstract level, but a lot of what they are doing is worse than useless - it interferes with the work of people who actually are doing useful things.

1. Mostly because it's not all about signaling.
2. To the extent it is we want to give competent and intelligent people an opportunity to signal their abilities.
3. Because accurate signals have value.

Sounds like they copied their system from Australia's HECS (Higher Education Contribution Scheme) introduced in the late 80s. HECS charges about half the cost to the student via an additional tax % once taxable income excedes a minimum. It replaced free tuition. It seems to have worked okay for 30 or so years. It doesn't seem to have changed much about education.

Do you know how Australia deals with Obling’s 4th issue above, skin in the game?

The simple method would be for the universities to receive these taxes, individually, thus making them take the bet on what degrees are valuable.

Explicitly so.

"This paper examines the consequences of charging tuition fees on university quality, enrollments, and equity." I don't believe that they can have a useful measure of quality.

Even countries where tuition fees are high have a lot of low quality universities, I don't believe the introduction of tuition fees raises average quality.

I agree that much uni study is bad.

could u price degrees with good labor market outcomes lower than degrees with bad labor market outcomes? could u price difficult degrees higher than easy degrees, so that hard and unmarketable degrees r most expensive, while ez and marketable degrees r cheapest? maybe I am overrating a cleared labor market as I think of how things might work better

What's really interesting is the natural experiment from the decision of the devolved government in Scotland to not charge fees to Scottish students attending Scottish universities. The result of that is lower admission rates in Scotland (there has to be a cap because the Scottish government is paying) which disproportionately excludes children from poorer families from university.
Counter-intuitive and not what they intended but in retrospect, inevitable.

Children from poorer families are disproportionately excluded from university regardless. Are you saying they were disproportionately excluded even more then before?

I think that's precisely his point. Though I also think use of the verb "exclude" is low propaganda.

It depends on the meaning of "free". I attended my state's public university many years ago. It wasn't "free" but the tuition was affordable; indeed, not only did I not obtain a "student loan", I'm not sure there was such a thing. Today, the tuition at that same public university is many, many, many times higher. Not only that, but other costs incurred by students, in particular housing, are much, much higher. What happened? Sure, the cost of living has increased, but nothing compared to the increase in the cost of an education at a public university. In many states, in particular states with Republican legislatures and governors, have cut funding to public universities. Not because of the need for public universities to "eliminate wasteful and inefficient spending on campus", but because they are perceived as hotbeds of political support for Democrats and as promoting a liberal agenda (multiculturalism, etc.).

The Republican war on public universities can be traced to California and Ronald Reagan, who devoted much of his campaign for governor in 1966 to attacking public universities in California, in particular Berkeley, promising to "clean up the mess at Berkeley" and blaming campus unrest on "a small minority of hippies, radicals and filthy speech advocates" whose leaders should "be taken by the scruff of the neck and thrown off campus—permanently." Of course, the Republican war on public universities has been a resounding "success"; indeed, campus unrest today isn't led by hippies but by right-wing fanatics, whose right of freedom of speech is defended by the same Republican politicians who have cut funding to public universities.

Republican politicians' negative attitude about public universities reflects the negative attitudes of a majority of Republicans: according to the Pew Research Center, 58% of Republicans polled indicated that colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country. In another recent poll, 62% of Americans polled expressed support for tuition-free college education (82% among Democrats and 58% among Independents), while a majority (52%) of Republicans opposed the idea; I'm not sure how to explain the 6% of Republicans who believe colleges and universities have a negative effect on the country but don't oppose the idea of tuition-free college education.

Not sure if Rayward's argument stands up to examination. The hypothesis that high tuition costs for students result from cuts in state funding, generally driven by Republican politiicans, suggests that we'd see significantly lower tuition rates in states where Democrats predominate. But if I compare in-state estimated one-year tuition-and-fees* at some very red states—
U. of Wyoming: $5,055
West Virginia U: $7,992
U. of Nebraska: $8,538
U. of Kansas: $11,455
—with the corresponding numbers for some very blue states—
U. of Maryland: $10,182
U. of Oregon: $10,762
U. of Massachusetts—Amherst: $15,156
U. of Vermont: $17,300
—I don't see such a pattern.

If there's a decrease in per-student funding from states' general funds, might this be due to an increased number of students enrolled? As far as I know, public-college tuition has never been enough to cover the actual costs, and probably not even the marginal cost per additional student. When a relatively small fraction of high-school graduates went on to college, the difference between tuition receipts and actual costs wasn't that big a fraction of the state's budget, and some states (e.g. Missouri ca. 1950, when one of my relatives attended) offered free tuition to any in-state high-school graduate. As the fraction of high-school grads going on to college increased, college became a bigger and bigger fraction of the state budget—which is to say that the cost per taxpayer rose.

This model would explain increased reluctance to fund a state college system at a given per-student rate, even if college expenses didn't increase faster than the background inflation rate; and wouldn't predict a trend toward higher tuition rates in red states than in blue ones.

*All tuition-and-fees numbers from

Damn! I tried to present those tuition estimates in neat tabular form, but the comment editor had other ideas. Sorry for the eye-watering presentation.

"The Republican war on public universities ..."

rayward is an ideologue. The evidence doesn't support his assertion to any significant degree.

Rayward hasn't been in a dorm in 40 years. Back in his day, dorms were like old school high rise public housing. Today, they more resemble a luxury hotel or spa. The former was cheap, reflected in the cost of room and board. The later is expensive... reflected in the cost of room and board.

Not sure if this explains it. Certainly one hears of luxury dorms; but, on the other hand, my old dorm at my alma mater is still in operation, and, given its basic plan, I doubt that much could've been done to transform it into luxury accommodations. Moreover, luxury living can generally be avoided: even in colleges that require freshmen to live in on-campus housing, upperclassmen have the option of sharing a squalid off-campus apartment with a hatful of roommates.

It's much harder to reduce tuition and fees, unless one has the cerebral wattage (or, better still, the defensive-tackling power) to land a fat scholarship. Students aren't blameless in the matter of fees: at least when I was in school ca. 1990, the student government urged the student body to vote for a $25-per-semester fee to build a shiny new recreation center, without for one moment ceasing to complain that tuition was too high.

I have long been of the view that free tuition for U.S. state schools would be an educational disaster.

1. Finance public institutions with donations, endowment income, and voucher redemptions. Do not charge tuition or mandatory fees. Limit ancillary charges to things which are metered, such as the snack bar, parking slots, or photocopying.

2. Have a special income surtax which finances higher education funds. The tax would be a flat levy over a large per-person exemption. You could have one tax for an undergraduate fund and one with a higher exemption for a graduate and professional fund. Adjust the value of the exemption each year per the change in nominal personal income per capita in the state but keep the marginal assessment rate fixed per the state constitution. The share of the state's personal income devoted to financing higher education would be roughly fixed.

3. An admission to a state college or university would grant the applicant a contingent claim on a voucher issued by the state board of regents. The applicant could claim the voucher by paying a recipients' fee financed out of family resources, grants from divers parties, and loans serviced at market rates. The value of fee would be contingent on the number of tax returns the applicant's parents had filed in the state (during the period prior to the applicants 20th birthday) and the number the applicant himself has filed (after that date). The more years, the lower the fee. However, should the applicant have received 4 years worth of vouchers to date, the fee charged would be equal to the redemption value for the voucher. These fees would be payable to the state treasury and the schools would never see them, as state financing of higher education would be limited to the special surtax. For an applicant whose family has filed returns covering 65% of his natural life, the fee would be $0; if returns cover 32.5% of his natural life, the fee would be half the redemption value; if the family has never filed a return in state, the fee would be the full redemption value.

4. Each year the board of regents declares a global freshman matriculation target which is allocated among schools according to a formula defined by statute as well as a global transfer matriculation which is allocated according to the distribution of attrition among the schools around the state. The redemption value of the voucher would be set per the year's tax revenue divided by the global target. In recession years, you'd either reduce redemption values or matriculation targets.

5. The aspirant would apply to a central admissions bureau providing them with his college board scores and achievement test scores, a high school transcript, copies of his family's state income surtax filings, and some supplementary information. Instead of applying to one school, he'd rank-order his choices among all the state's schools. The admissions bureau would compute a composite score for the student based on his grades and test scores and apply a model to the information in the dossier to assess the probability of the student attending a given institution were it his 1st choice, 2d choice, 3d choice &c.

6. Sort the applicants' cards among their 1st choice schools, rank-ordering the cards according to applicants' composite scores. Each student will have been assigned a fractional value derived from the bureau's assessment of his probability of attendance given that the school is his first choice. Run down the rank-order and compute a running balance of fractional values until the sum equals the matriculation target for the school in question. For each school, you'll have a cut-off composite score.

7. Start with the school with the highest cut-off score. It's admissions will be those students with scores higher than the cut-off. The applicant cards of those scoring below the cut-off will then be distributed to the pile of their 2d choice school. Again, rank order the cards in each pile according to composite score.

8. Repeat step 6, recalling, however, that the fractional value pertaining to some of the applicants will be that derived from their probability of their attending given that it's their 2d choice school. Repeat and repeat until the freshman class has been filled at all schools.

9. For transfer admissions, follow a similar procedure, with some twists. The state admissions bureau would have to classify each applicant according to whether he's to be considered for freshman, sophomore, junior, or senior classes. This will require a policy manual to be adopted by the board of regents which specifies schools from which any credits are null, nominated subjects for which any credits are null, schools for which credits in a given nominated subject are null, schools for which any D grades are null, and schools for which any C grades are also null. Also, probability of attendance will be calculated according to different formulae and a students' composite score will be calculated including the college transcript to date.

10. W / regard to graduate and professional admissions, applicants would apply to program clusters. Certain admissions policies regarding the clusters would be determined by committees of department heads convened by the board of regents, e.g. a policy manual indicating from which schools a baccalaureate degree is deemed null, which subject degrees are deemed inadequate preparation for the programs wherever they are earned, which subjects are deemed inadequate if the BA is earned at a particular school but are not deemed globally, and what post-baccalaureate credits need to be earned. The committees would also determine which among the GRE, GMAT, MCAT, and LSAT would be required to produce a valid application. Composite scores would be calculated from college transcripts and the standardized test to be used. Aspirants would be limited to 4 years of discounted or free vouchers for graduate and professional programs. The state admissions bureau would follow roughly the same procedure it uses for undergraduate admissions. An aspirant could, however, fill out an application for as many program clusters as he cared to.

11. Once students are admitted, the admissions office at each school will examine their dossier to determine which, per policies fixed by the board of trustees, are due for campus-specific financial aid financed out of the institutions general funds or dedicated endowments. This aid might take the form of a grant to pay the recipients' fee to the state treasury or the form of a living stipend or a berth for a campus wage job. Athletic scholarships by law would be limited to those whose composite score was above the 32d percentile of the admitted parties.

12. At this juncture, the faculty would assessed those students admitted to graduate and professional programs to ascertain which should be awarded stipends and fellowships financed out of the department's budget or out of dedicated endowments distributed by the department. They'd have no discretion over the pool of admissions, though.


13. Private higher education would be financed out of tuition,room-and-board charges donations, and endowment income. Some students would get scholarships, most not. Loans taken to finance higher education would be unsubsidized.

14. All federal aid to higher education would cease forthwith except: scholarships for veterans, scholarships for federal employees set for education and training, and fellowships for university-based researchers which would include an indemnity to their institution for the loss of their services. Federal agencies would do their research in house, occasionally tapping university-based researchers with fellowships. Research undertaken at universities might be financed by corporations, foundations, or public research endowments. The public endowments would not be financed out of the state treasury in an annual appropriation. Rather, there would be occasional referenda to approve (or deny) special bond issues to fund this endowment. Such endowments could also accept private contributions. There would be no federal pipeline to colleges and universities and no regular state pipeline either. Researchers benefiting from the public endowments would be those employed at public institutions only.

15. Community colleges would be open enrollment for anyone with an in-state equivalency and financed with per-course tuition charges, donations, and endowment income. Each would be set up with a foundational endowment from a state bond issue to pay extant fixed costs. Going forward, they'd be on their own re their variable costs except that there might be occasional referenda for special bond issues to finance a scholarship endowment. Such referenda would be held within a given colleges geographic catchment and the county governments in question would issue the bonds. There would be no regular financing of community colleges from state legislatures, the federal legislature, or local councils.

16. Federal regulation of higher education qua higher education would be limited to the following: (1) the rubrics of the fee-for-service transaction between the school and parties across state lines or the international border, including disclosure requirements; (2) the production of a demographic sheet which reports the stock-and-flow statistics of the student body, faculty, staff, and administration broken down by coarse categories like sex and race. In particular, the median college board scores of students in each faculty would have to be reported; these statements would be audited and schools and school officials would be prosecuted if they lied (as they will seek to do); (3) consumer protection statutes which mandate a controlled vocabulary be used in cross state recruitment: e.g. a 'baccalaureate degree' means 120 credits and 30 weeks in an academic year, with prosecution of violators. Such a controlled vocabulary could also restrict the subject degree programs which could be offered across state lines. No more 'women's studies'.

17. Redefine degree programs in federal and state law, eliminating the baccalaureate degree with its distribution credits and instituting 1, 2, 3, and 4 year degrees (in academics and the arts) and a miscellany of degree and certificate programs in vocational subjects, with the calendar year 48 credit degree program the mode. Dissertation programs one would enter after completing the 4th year of classroom study. Induce students to spend less time in school.

18. Eliminate anti-discrimination law applicable to private institution, provided certain disclosure requirements are respected (as noted above).

19. Limit continuous tenure to a fixed % of the fte faculty (say, 38%) and make it a rule of thumb not to grant tenure to applicants under 55 or with less than 20 years service, debarring by law a grant of tenure to anyone under 45 with less than 12 years f/t service. Make retirement mandatory when two milestones are met: one has contributed to TIAA-CREF for 35 years worth of f/t employment and one has reached the standard retirement age for Social Security benefits (provided one qualifies as 'fully' or 'permanently' insured). Have most of the faculty on renewable contracts, with rank dependent on the duration of the contract in question. Have generous severance for displaced faculty.


As long as you end federal financing, prune federal regulation, limit public financing to a fixed % of a state's personal income, and scarify degree programs, I'm not seeing the disaster.

You aren't seriously expecting MR commenters to read your twenty point dissertation and provide any discussion of substance, are you?

It's a thread with several dozen comments on it as we speak. Some people will read them all, some do not.

Most of my comments are two sentences long. This one's the exception. I have no expectations whatsoever. If you don't wish to read it, don't.

"I have long been of the view that free tuition for U.S. state schools would be an educational disaster."

1. We are all conservative in the things we know the best.

2. Being a Professor, you'd have to deal with them.

I'm not sure income based repayment plans are much better than free tuition -- we don't need to encourage people to run up huge debts preparing for low-income occupations with the government eating the difference. Those programs also present an opening for all kinds of abusive special favors for influential interest groups:

Essentially the only evidence supporting TC's claim that the end of free college was "egalitarian" is Figure 9 of the paper, which shows % of 18/19 year olds enrolled in college by parental income. For those with parents among the poorest 20%, this proportion increased from what looks like 11% in 1997 to 14% in 2015 (it is hard to tell whether these are correct numbers, because the graph is hard to read). This is incorrectly reported in the main text as an increase from about 10% to about 20%. For those with the richest 20% of parents, the proportion increased from maybe 36% to 37 or 38%. If anything, there was a modest decline in enrollment since the tuition fee hike of 2012 for those with the poorest parents, and no change for those with the richest parents. There is no attempt to control for trends in participation for different groups that might be unrelated to the changes in policy over this period (and no standard errors). As such, these results obviously do *not* "suggest that England’s shift has resulted in... a narrowing of the participation gap between advantaged and disadvantaged students".

Clearly the system didn't get less egalitarian.

"provides students with comparatively generous assistance for living expenses".
-> be careful, that has been changed, from grants to loans in the budget this year...

also, the most popular politician in the UK right now (Jeremy Corbyn), enjoying huge approval rating among the youth, campaigns for free tuition.

tuition fees have become a social time bomb in Britain, a country already suffering from huge inequalities...

What 'huge inequalities'? Your nobility (who number fewer than 3,000) will have a single-digit census of employees at their residences (if that) and open them for public tours to make ends meet. You haven't any equivalent of a Peruvian peasant population and you haven't any equivalent to an American slum lumpenproletariat bar what your elites have elected to import the last 50-odd years.

I'm curious about other people's experience. Tuition has not been the driving cost factor for me, it has always been living expenses. This has resulted in a longer time in college since I've had a full time job to pay for the rest of life. I have a MS now, but the process was slower than others. I don't know what the difference would have been between me and the hypothetical me who took out loans, but I suspect the work experience/no debt offset the loss of not earning the degree sooner. Having my tuition fully funded would have helped, and it would have accelerated the process. I had to skip a few semesters along the way. I would have graduated sooner if the tuition was paid for, but the need to work was to pay for the rest of life. Does the average person spend more on tuition or life expenses? Personally I took routes that minimized my tuition, and I realize many don't.

Relative to the people around me who shared their salary at graduation, mine was roughly double my fellow graduates. However, I also took roughly double the time to graduate.

I doubt my degree would have resulted in the salary bump it did without being engineering, my work experience in engineering, and the job I applied to being engineering.

When academics talk about this, they appear to always focus exclusively on people who have an uninterrupted path between pre-school and tenure with a focus on protecting those who have tenure. If only economics had a word for that....

College professors in favor of government paid college are greedy bastards that recognize two things:

1) fully funded government tuition will effectively increase subsidies
2) the elasticity of supply/demand for college education implies that an increase in subsidies for college tuition will directly benefit college professor's paychecks

"I have long been of the view that free tuition for U.S. state schools would be an educational disaster".

While I am not necessarily averse to the loan Idea, I wonder if Tyler views free public high schools in the early decades of the 20th century as an educational disaster. At that time manual labor was very important whereas today human capital is much more important, life expectancy was much shorter so that the returns to education extended over a shorter period of time, the US was much poorer so that the cost of high school education relative to GDP was greater than the cost of university education relative to GDP today, Furthermore, unlike free public high schools, free tuition does not mean every student gets admitted. Finally, most of the time one could attend high school without living away from home in contrast to today where a college education is more likely to involve living elsewhere and obviously free tuition does not include living expenses.

This is not to say that free tuition for state schools is not politically problematic.

The problem with public high school is that time therein is frittered away. Prior to the Depression, most youths between 14 and 18 were not enrolled in high school. Youth from wage-earning families commonly entered the workforce around age 14 or 15. Incorporating a great many non-academic youth was a challenge to metropolitan public high schools, and one they've never quite met.

We'd be better off with sorting youths in that age group into schools for distinct purposes. Britain used to have grammar schools (academic curriculum), vocational high schools, and 'secondary modern' schools which taught basic education and life-skills.

Education creep. Or maybe education ratchet.

I'm amazed that alternative forms of signaling self-discipline and conscientiousness haven't emerged, other than 'getting more education.'

Focus on reducing cost, not increasing subsidies. Online courses, community colleges for remedial courses and 101s, etc.

"I have long been of the view that free tuition for U.S. state schools would be an educational disaster."

WaPo has a story about Germany potentially ending free tuition for non-Germans.
"Want to study for free in Germany? You might need to hurry up."

Now I grew up in Indiana in the 60s when California had free tuition and Indiana only had highly subsidized tuition. At that time, "technology", my interest, was 90% in Massachusetts, not California. Purdue was cheaper than my going to a school in Massachusetts or California because I got the smaller subsidy that I would not get in either State. But California residents paid less in tuition than I would, and Massachusetts residents would pay less in Massachusetts.

So, based on that resulting in an educational disaster, the rise of California and overtaking Massachusetts on technology and Indiana slipping further behind, States should strive to have an educational disaster of from free tuition. And Germany seems to have benefited greatly from its educational disaster as it taking the lead in Europe as the UK is ending it's free tuition educational disaster that resulted in its economic leadership.

Clearly free tuition educational disaster is great for the economy.

I can't think of any place where tuition is high that has a great economy. And the cheap or low tuition proceeds the great economy.

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