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What If College Tuition Were Free? You have to be rich to afford it.

May 15, 2012 1 comment

If college tuition were made free, ironically, only the rich will be able to attend.  Here is why.

What If College Tuition Were Free?
You have to be rich to afford it.

By James H. Choi
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What if college tuition were free?  In Brazil, this daydream was the reality.   Universidade de São Paulo (USP) — the best university in Brazil, and the best in Latin America according to US News Ranking — is practically free.  Students pay no tuition, a few fees, and cheap, subsidized lunches (which where 10 cents while I was in high school).  The logic is simple: Brazil offers the finest education to anyone capable of taking it, as proven through dint of their hard work, regardless of their financial background.

Of course, this free university tuition has unintended consequences.  USP is, despite being free, filled with students of rich families.  The school chooses its students based on scores from Vestibular, USP’s admissions testing system.  Vestibular is the most intense entrance exam in the nation that is conducted in phases.  A student’s university admission depends solely on these tests’ scores alone.  No GPA, no extra-curricular activities are considered.  In a way, it is a very logical and transparent process.

To score high on these tests is to be admitted, but it is also to have prepared well.  Those institutions that prepare students well for the Vestibular charge a lot.  Therefore, USP admits students in droves from mostly just a few expensive high schools.
I know this well because I attended one of those high schools myself: the venerable Colégio Bandeirantes.  At my school, students were so well prepared, some of us would take Vestibular at the end of the second year (as opposed to normal third year) to show off their precocious intelligence.  (This was a pure showmanship.  They could not enter the university because they did not have a high-school degree.)  In the end, USP and other nearly free-tuition universities become packed with students from rich families who have paid extensively for preparation up to high-school years.  This is the irony: To enjoy free tuition, you must be rich.  “Matthew Effect” strikes again.

To make free university tuition democratically accessible, high-quality high schools would have to be open to students of all economic backgrounds.  Once again, only some students would get admitted to these, and so this would spur competitive and expensive middle schools to shape students for the free high schools.  Elementary schools and preschools would follow suit.  And by the time students’ are competing to enter preschools, you have a new problem on your hands: The students’ fates begin to depend on their lives before they even enter elementary schools.

Friends of mine who are now professors at USP tell me the system is pretty much the same as it was when we attended; in fact, they say the favor toward the rich has worsened.  Those who are in power and thus benefiting from this system have no motivation to change it.  Thus, the working class people are paying for the tuition of higher class families.  Who would have thought a free college education could become a model for social injustice?

Nor is this phenomenon unique to Brazil.  According to The Economist: “The biggest single supplier of undergraduates to the University of Edinburgh was Eton.”  Eton College is the British equivalent to the Philips Academy in the U.S.  A prestigious high school famous for being attended by the children of the rich and influential, and producing influential figures.

Nowadays, the college tuition is an extremely controversial topic in many countries.  At the time of this writing, a “Half-Price Tuition Movement” is afoot in Korea complete with candle-lit protests, and the Chilean students are demonstrating for “free high-quality universities for all.”  North American universities are always mired on this controversy, and once-free British universities are now going through pains after they recently decided to charge university tuition.

It seems to me that every system has its own flaws and the best we can hope for is to select the system that is least bad.  Beyond these vague words, I have no wisdom to offer.  I would like to hear your actual experiences in the comment box below.

Categories: College Tuition
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