Free Tuition? What might that look like? This is my thinking, and nothing more. I may be completely wrong, entirely right or (likely) a little right and a little wrong.
If beginning January 20, 2017 the next President declares free college tuition for everyone, this is what I think that would look like:
- Tuition will not appear as a "cost" line item at colleges continuing to participate in the Federal Student Aid program. Some private colleges will opt out.
- Costs may change at first, but they will creep up year-by-year until the "free tuition" is replaced by other fees and charges. Even with free tuition, room and board, mandatory fees and books will not be free.
- Admissions criteria will roil with confusion. If college is free because of federal tax supplements, how can a student be denied admission? To manage enrollment, free tuition will be offered for limited college choices based on students' home zip codes?
- If anyone can attend, and everyone attends tuition-free, there will be an impact on the marketplace value of a college degree. Degrees from private colleges that have opted out, and continue charging tuition, will be perceived as meritorious, and a two-tiered market value will emerge.
- If college is tuition-free, what will be the motivation to complete a degree in four years? Students may find it much easier to stay, and stay and stay in the crafted comfort of higher education.
- The federal government will seize some portion, or the entirety of current 529 Plan accounts, using the rationale that they are no longer needed. The argument will be made those funds are needed by the federal treasury to cover the costs of making college free.
- The IRS will impose a new federal surtax to cover U.S. Treasury disbursements. It may be a tax added to filers with AGI above a certain dollar amount. It may be a surtax on filers above a certain income level who also have students attending college during that tax year. It may be a tax on intercollegiate sporting events and revenue. It may be all of those, and more.
- Colleges participating in the free-tuition-program will be monitored as to salaries and capital expenditures. The federal government will not, you can be certain, pay a per-student tuition reimbursement college comptrollers think is fair (to wit: Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements to doctors). Tuition reimbursement will be according to a federal schedule, based on per capita census, with regional cost-of-living adjustments.
- Professors will retire early; will exit for higher-paying, private-sector employment, or will devote less time to education and more time to writing, speech-making, fee-based private education, and other means of sustaining and increasing their personal incomes.
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