Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Can the US Meet its College Completion Goals with the Current Tuition Structure?

This is the question that we asked in a recent policy brief that was released through the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education. This policy brief is based on our prior work on cross-national higher education policy diffusion that considered postsecondary enrollment levels, completion levels, and the role of different types of tuition systems.

In our work, we noticed that no nations with upfront tuition systems have gross graduation rates above 50%. This is a concern because the US has adopted a goal “that by 2020, America would once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world,” but the US uses an upfront tuition system.

Johnstone & Marcucci argue that user fees enable the expansion of postsecondary systems due to the infusion of resources that student tuitions add into these systems. However, it appears to us that there is an inconsistent rate of expansion. Nations with upfront tuition systems are able to expand from elite systems in which few students graduate from college to massified systems with between 15-50% gross graduation rates.

However, upfront tuition systems have a negative effect on the expansion of gross graduation rates beyond the 50% threshold. Upfront tuition systems place an emphasis on students enrolling, since payments are collected at the time of matriculation. Under these systems funding incentives are generally comparable for both new and continuing students. As long as replacements can be found for dropouts, upfront tuition systems provide similar incentives for systems that churn through many students, who attend but never graduate, and systems that have students return year-by-year. Perhaps because of the incentives inherent in upfront tuition systems, it appears that there is a structural limitation of upfront tuition systems in expanding gross graduation rates above the 50% threshold.

In our policy brief we considered tuition structures and gross graduation rates for 37 nations. Nations with other models of higher education funding – deferred, dual track, and no/only nominal tuition systems – have all passed the 50% gross graduation rate threshold. If large upfront tuition levels impede students from completing their degrees, then the structure of an upfront payment system itself may depress college completion rates.

We think that discussions about college completion should include discussions of the financing structure that is currently used in the US. Importantly, we would like state and national policymakers, and institutional leaders to consider the question, Can the US meet its college completion goals with the current tuition structure?

Jennifer A. Delaney, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She specializes in higher education finance and policy; particularly state funding of higher education.

The Forum on the Future of Public Education strives to bring the best empirical evidence to policymakers and the public. The Forum draws on a network of premier scholars to create, interpret, and disseminate credible information on key questions facing P-20 education.