Higher Education

“Free” College Tuition Doesn’t Add Up*

Students in physics class

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had significant success in attracting young people to his campaign in no small part due to his proposal to make tuition free at public colleges and universities.

Hillary Clinton responded to the Sanders proposal with a means-tested program of free tuition for families with incomes under $125,000. Donald Trump did not offer his own free tuition plan, but the end of the campaign season did not bring about an end to this proposal. In January, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled a free tuition plan for his state similar to the Clinton plan.

The goals of these programs are certainly admirable. It has become well understood that a college education has become increasingly important, maybe even essential, for entry into the middle and upper-middle class.

The goals of free tuition are to increase educational attainment and better prepare students for the job market, especially those for whom costs might be insurmountable. Some proponents argue that for many future students a college degree will become what a high school diploma is today.

These policy proposals have been met with mixed reviews for three important reasons.

The first concern focuses on costs. In tight budget times, it is not clear Congress nor states would be interested in a program that costs $75 billion a year, according to The Wall Street Journal and Sanders’ estimates.  It is a basic question of opportunity cost. If we, as a society, can find $75 billion in additional tax revenue or if we are willing to borrow it, is free tuition the best way to spend that money?

A second concern is equity. A free tuition program is not, of course, “free.” Federal and state taxpayers would pay for tuition costs, and here the analogy with high school education breaks down.

The equity implications of funding the two educational models are different in important ways. Most public high schools are funded with property taxes in the district where the schools are located. The recipients of the education are, by and large, the children of the taxpayers. Revenues are collected in a means-tested fashion where wealthier homeowners pay more and, therefore, the costs of education are generally means-tested too, as wealthier families are paying more for their children’s education than less well-off families. (There are, of course, further equity concerns as richer districts can choose to offer a different quality education than poorer ones.)

Students in classroom discussion

Photo: Tommy O’Laughlin ’13

Under any free tuition plan, the link between the taxpayer and consumers of education is much less clear, potentially raising equity concerns.

Many taxpayers who would fund free tuition will never have children who pursue public college education. Weakening the link between those paying for a program and its beneficiaries likely weakens political support.

More importantly, the means testing of the student recipients is much weaker. With tuition at zero, the free tuition plan is basically a transfer from taxpayers to students, regardless of the individual student’s economic circumstances. Data from the College Board reveals that because of financial aid programs, the primary beneficiaries of free tuition are upper-middle-class students who pay the most tuition at public institutions.

Even if this transfer from taxpayers to upper-middle-class families was defensible, most economists would argue that if transferring income to students for their education is the goal, then it should be done directly — such as Pell Grants at the federal level or the Minnesota State Grant program at the state level. Such a grant could be means-tested and targeted if taxpayers felt low-income students should be the primary beneficiaries.

The third concern is the way free tuition would distort educational choices. By making the price of state colleges and universities zero, a free tuition program would significantly increase the price differential between public colleges and private institutions. This change could have a significant impact on enrollments between different types of four-year schools and be detrimental to some students.

Private and public schools offer a range of different experiences, as those of us in Central Minnesota are well aware — from small schools like Saint John’s University and the College of Saint Benedict to mid-sized, public, comprehensive schools like St. Cloud State University to large research institutions like the University of Minnesota.

Most high school students have the option of choosing from among different kinds of four-year schools. Price is a consideration. But with financial aid, most students can consider public and private options. With a free tuition model, the playing field is tilted dramatically in favor of public options, and the strongest students will likely take the majority of free places, leaving the less academically prepared students with fewer options.

The 2,200-plus four-year options for post-secondary education in the United States serve students well by letting them select the best fit for their talents, interests and previous educational experience. Any public policy that narrows the range of choices, in this case by distorting prices, potentially leaves the intended beneficiaries worse off.
These policy debates are likely moot given the Republican administration and Republican Congress in Washington, but given the increasing importance and costs of higher education, the free tuition debate will be back.

*This column originally appeared in The St. Cloud Times on February 25, 2017.

To Speak for Saint John’s—Or Not*

Saint John's University logoRarely does a week go by when I am not asked, as the President of Saint John’s, to commit the University to a position on some public issue beyond Collegeville.  The requests come from alumni, parents, students, faculty and outside organizations.  Each wants the public support of Saint John’s on a particular issue.  These issues typically have two characteristics.  They are complicated and multidimensional—no one asks Saint John’s to support motherhood and apple pie—and they are emotional—the individuals requesting the University’s support typically feel very strongly about the issue, as do those on the other side.  The most recent request was to take a position on President Trump’s executive order on immigration.

As these requests started coming more often, I decided it was important to have some general guidelines and not respond on a case by case basis.  I am in an incredibly privileged position to be able to make, with input from colleagues, such judgments, but it is also a position that I approach with great care.  I very rarely want others to speak for me,  and I assume that is true of others  in the Saint John’s community as well.

I now approach these issues by asking three questions:

The first question I ask is, “Who is Saint John’s?”  As an institution, we represent many constituencies and between monks, employees, students and alumni, Saint John’s is more than 25,000 individuals.  If you include parents and friends, the number approaches 40,000.  We are a very diverse community, which is a tremendous strength, but does not lend itself to homogeneity of thought.

As such, I am very, very hesitant to offer an “institutional” position on any political or social issue because in virtually every case there will be significant disagreement within the community. Institutions don’t normally have opinions or positions, individuals do, and I do not feel it is my right or the University’s right to speak for those individuals on political or social issues where they naturally have their own views and where thoughtful, well-intentioned  Johnnies are likely to disagree.

The second question I consider is about exceptions to this general guideline above.  Does the issue at hand have a direct and significant effect on our students and our educational mission?  For example, there is an ongoing debate around Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a law that, under certain conditions, prevents the deportation of undocumented students who came to the United States as children.  This issue clearly has a direct impact on some of our students, and Saint John’s took a public stance this fall in support of the continuation of DACA.  Because the law has a direct impact on some students and our goal of educating them, I felt it was appropriate to express and defend an institutional position, even as I know there are some in the Saint John’s community who would disagree.

The third question I consider when asked to take a position is that of the educational impact.  Is the issue at hand likely to come up in classrooms, dormitories or other public settings?  If the political or social issue is part of an active public debate and is not directly about educational policy, no institutional position is usually the right choice for the education of our students.

I believe that when Saint John’s takes an institutional position on any issue, we run the real risk of stifling debate on campus and within our community.  If there is the perception that there is an orthodox or “correct” view on an issue, faculty, staff and especially students may feel they are not able to express their disagreement or even debate the merits of differing positions.  This is particularly relevant in the classroom and is a position I have come to from over twenty-five years as a professor.  There can be no more harmful action at an educational institution than to do something that limits, or even risks limiting, the freedom of expression and the free exchange of ideas.  That, of course, is what academic freedom and education are all about.

Saint John’s University, as an institution, will certainly help our students in almost any way we can to pursue and achieve their educational dreams, but only in rare circumstances does this include taking a public and official university stance on a matter of policy or politics.  Sometimes no position is truly the best position.

A version of this post will appear in CSB/SJU’s student newspaper, The Record, on February 10, 2017.

By |February 9th, 2017|Categories: Higher Education||16 Comments

Benedictine Hospitality: “Wanna race?”

Three Johnnies smiling at cameraAs one of the public faces of Saint John’s, I get the opportunity to meet many of the guests who come to our campus. Invariably, first time visitors make two observations about Saint John’s. First, that we have a stunningly beautiful campus and second, that everyone is so friendly. One visitor even asked whether we taught our students to identify guests and then to hold doors open and say hi to them!

The first comment is not so surprising. The monks chose brilliantly when they decided that the woods and prairie around Lake Sagatagan would be home to the Abbey and University. The second compliment is perhaps a little more surprising since many of our campus visitors are from Minnesota, a state that has a well-deserved reputation for nice and polite people.

But after so many of these conversations, I have become convinced that our Benedictine hospitality and sense of community does set us apart, even for Minnesotans. What is particularly striking is that this behavior just becomes second nature for faculty, staff and students. The latter group pick up on the social ethos quickly and make it their own, as the encounter below suggests.

Sarah Gainey, the Environmental Education Coordinator at Saint John’s Outdoor University, recently wrote the following to football Coach Gary Fasching, and I am using it here with her permission:

I work at Saint John’s Outdoor University coordinating outdoor field trips for visiting preK-12th graders from the surrounding area. We normally hold our field trips outdoors in the Abbey Arboretum, but because a lack of snow this week, I was holding indoor field trips for 5th graders in the McNeely Spectrum. I would like to share with you an amazing interaction I witnessed last Thursday between members of your football team and a 5th grade class visiting Saint John’s.

The class arrived early to eat lunch before our field trip. After they ate, they were allowed to run around the track, but were instructed to leave anyone alone who was in there working out, which included 3 members of the football team doing conditioning drills. As a few of the 5th graders crossed the track in front of the football players, one young man said to them, ‘Hi there! Wanna race?’ The wide-eyed look of excitement on the boys’ face was priceless and they responded, ‘We aren’t allowed to.’ I quickly intervened and said, ‘Go ask your teacher if it is okay.’

A few moments later, the entire 5th grade class was lined up and ready to race the 3 football players. After a ‘ready set go’ everyone ran as hard as they could and the football players beat all the 5th graders. It wasn’t how the race ended that was memorable, but instead the way the players treated the students that is going to be remembered by every student, teacher, and Outdoor U staff member that witnessed the interaction.

These were kids from a school in St Cloud with a high poverty rate and who have to deal with a whole host of issues no one that age should have to worry about. My main objective is to instill in these and all the kids who come to Saint John’s for field trips a love of science and the natural world. But often times the field trip ends up being more about life, having a positive exposure to a college campus and college students, and about just being a good human being. Your football players helped me achieve that second objective probably without even thinking about it. They were just being kind and welcoming to a group of kids who will remember that day for a long time.

I didn’t get the players’ names but I did shake their hands and thanked them for what they did. And I wanted to thank you for having those kind people on your team. Those kids might not remember what I tried to teach them about science that day, but they will remember how they were treated by people at Saint John’s.

SJU Football Player

Photo: Richard Larkin McLay ’17

As Sarah notes, this simple, and mostly likely, reflexive kindness on the part of these three Johnnies may well have an impact that  reaches far beyond what the young men might ever imagine.

One of the biggest challenges our country faces in the years ahead it to address the achievement gap between students of color and majority students, a gap that is significantly larger for boys than girls. To take full advantage of the talents of this generation of young people, they will need post-secondary education, and the best way to make that happen is to instill in these children an assumption, at an early age, that college is not only a possible option but that it is an assumed option for most of them.

For relatively underprivileged elementary school children to come to a college campus and discover that people are nice to them, that college students are friendly and approachable, and that you have fun hanging out with them is a tremendous step in the right direction.

I am glad that Sarah did not get the name of the young men involved. Pick your favorite three Johnnies–it was them.

By |January 31st, 2017|Categories: Higher Education, Kudos||1 Comment