Does Reducing Tuition Boost College Enrollment?

It seems intuitive that a tuition reduction in colleges would increase enrollment; however, BYU Economics professor Dr. Jeffrey Denning recently published a study showing that decreasing the cost of attendance boosted enrollment at community colleges but not necessarily at four-year universities. “Community colleges are a large part of the higher education system in the United States but have received relatively little research attention,” said Dr. Denning, “Voters interested in whether they should support proposals to reduce tuition may…find the study useful.”

Free Tuition Considerations

In 2015, former president Barack Obama decreed that he intended to make community college free, making it easier for people to get a college education. A Washington Post article that cited a previous study of Denning’s—published when he was a PhD student at University of Texas, Austin—as it applied to Obama’s plan said: “If Obama’s proposal is rolled out, Denning’s data [from a case study in Texas] suggest that there will be more people who choose community college over a four-year college, but perhaps not that many, and probably not to their detriment.” He found, however, that tuition cuts at community colleges slightly increased the number of people transferring to four-year colleges, and that the four-year college graduation rate rose slightly: “About a quarter of people helped by the discounted tuition ended up transferring and getting a four-year degree. This is evidence that there are talented students who would use community college as a springboard to a bachelor’s degree, if only they could afford to start down that path.”

Denning’s 2017 study is an expansion of his previous paper, studying data from Texas, but examines it from a slightly different angle and with slightly different findings, showing that lower community college tuition still increased transfer from community colleges to universities, but that there were a variety of mitigating, complicating factors that made it difficult to gauge the exact extent.

Why Does This Matter?

Many states are considering legislation that would enable this transition. According to the National Conference of State Legislators, eleven states are debating laws that would implement free community college tuition, and five either already have legislation passed or programs in place to implement it:

comm college

According to Dr. Denning, it is imperative that people understand the impact tuition reduction in community colleges can have: “Understanding the effects of community college tuition is important because policymakers must decide how to price community colleges…. Reductions in community college tuition [have] very different implications if [they]…increase overall college attendance or shuffle students from the four-year sector to the two-year sector.” Public policy and school attendance can be affected by the price of community college.

Criticism

Despite Obama’s support and Dr. Denning’s study, free community college tuition has been decried by critics. He says: “A common criticism of ‘free tuition’ programs is that they are just subsidizing students who would attend higher education without the subsidy. My study suggests that these sorts of subsidies are likely to target new students and students who would already be in the community college sector.” Instead of denigrating the higher education system, tuition reduction will boost enrollment.

Do you think community college tuition should be reduced?

Map courtesy of the National Conference of State Legislators

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