Why College Can’t Be Free
A common misunderstanding seems to persist through nearly all discussions surrounding tuition dollars. So let’s begin by recognizing a basic fact: private colleges like Albright are nonprofit organizations. And like all nonprofit organizations, Albright’s revenues and expenses are not unlimited, and must balance. Tuition, and gifts, alike must be used to support our mission-based classroom and student experiences, faculty and staff salaries, maintenance on 100-year-old buildings and next-generation technology.
Unfortunately, this simple reality tends to get lost in dinner table conversations about free college. Yes, student experience amenities at some schools look more like that of high-end resorts than colleges. But the base reality remains. Actual educational expenses are required to support student success.
The highest quality education, whether face-to-face or online, is done by real teachers who engage with each student, in a subject about which the teacher is passionate and knowledgeable. Salaries for these professionals is not inexpensive — and it shouldn’t be. In addition, teaching materials must be developed and regularly updated, and face-to-face programs, classrooms, living spaces, athletic facilities, and dining halls must be built and maintained. All of these add to the expense of nonprofit institutions.
So what is the revenue source in a free college program? Who actually pays these educational expenses? Most of these programs are “last-dollar” programs, meaning that students are required to utilize federal grants and loans before state dollars are used. This means that the U.S. taxpayer foots the immediate cost. Ultimately, students pay much of the cost through federal loan programs. But beyond federal programs, state citizens pay for free college through taxes.
We’ve already tried the “taxpayer foots the bill” experiment. It’s called public higher education. Historically, public institutions have been wonderful choices for higher education at a lower cost; however, in the last decade, state legislators have significantly decreased support for public education — and the cost is being passed on to students. The majority of state schools now rely more heavily on student-paid tuition than on state spending.
Indeed, free college is not free.
“Free college” makes a great political soundbite because people value what comes with a degree: discovery of who we are and of what we are capable, deep knowledge, expanded opportunity, security, and greater potential to live happy, fulfilling lives.
A college degree is undeniably valuable. Significant wage differences between those who earn bachelor’s degrees and those who don’t has been documented by both the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Pew Research Foundation. The Federal Reserve of New York calculates a 15 percent internal return to completing a college degree, based on the full set of costs and benefits. Who wouldn’t want a politician to promise that something so valuable would be free?
Given this value, a college education should be accessible to any who desire to expend the effort required to earn a degree. How do we make that happen? There is no simple nor obvious answer. Solutions will only come through long and deliberate effort by people who are committed to understanding and evaluating the data.
Meanwhile, many schools are focusing on building financial models that balance revenue and expenses, keep costs reasonable for students and families, and remains sustainable in the medium- and long-term. At Albright, we have chosen to significantly reduce tuition and fees, by 45 percent, moving from the high-tuition-high-discount model, currently standard in higher education, to a more transparent pricing structure. At the same time, we are working to visualize a more sustainable expense structure, including sustainability in utilities. And we are developing approaches to four-year planning of our academic programs, so that our students continue to be taught by full-time faculty.
Whether this is the right approach remains to be seen. What we know with certainty is that college isn’t free; a good education, and the value of such education, comes with the associated expenses. Making a college education available and accessible will take collaboration by more than college faculty and administrators. It will take work and collaboration of local and state government officials and business leaders — work we are pursuing with Pennsylvania leaders.
I invite you, alumni of Albright College, to engage in this conversation and to join us in the hard work of making an Albright education accessible and affordable as we honor our longstanding commitment to students of academic promise.
Jacquelyn S. Fetrow, Ph.D. ’82
President and Professor of Chemistry