Means-test the rich, or another argument for eliminating tuition

Here’s an oversimplified choice for how to fund post-secondary education. Imagine you have two options for dealing with how people pay for post-secondary education:

  1. Universal free tuition, means-testing to see if you are rich enough to pay
  2. Universal tuition fees, means-testing to see if you are poor enough to not pay

Either of these can be brought into being in many ways. At base, however, these are two roughly symmetrical ways of achieving the same thing. Right now in Canada, we have a version of (2): tuition and a complex system of need-based grants and scholarships, student loans and tax rebates largely available if you prove yourself poor enough to deserve them. The thought of (1) instead occurred to reading Dr. Dawg’s excellent reply to the pro-tuition argument. Dawg, however, ends by saying that “[post-secondary education] should not be means-tested, any more than medicare or our highway system should be.” But why not means-test those who can afford to pay for higher education in a society as unequal as ours and where the benefits from education are so unequally distributed?

It’s well-worn idea, but worth repeating, that means-testing is social policy that serves purposes beyond financial management. Not only is the point of means-testing to raise fees from the right people but to discipline those involved: to show who fits where and how. The Byzantine maze of need-based funding – often coming from various sources, including grants and loans – only confirms to those that have to apply for it that the university is not really their place, that they not only have to ask to be let in but then ask ten more times for the means to stay. The point is not just that navigating the “intricate, elaborate and thoroughly unmanageable” system is hard and time-consuming, but that the well-off don’t have to bother with it – for example, over 40% of students graduate with no loans.

I’ve mentioned Corey Robin’s nice turn of phrase for more radical social reform before but it applies pretty well here too. Removing tuition and all the related financial aid procedures would mean that for students from the lower ends of the income distribution we would be “turning hysterical misery into ordinary unhappiness”. The simple fact of having to pay $5,000 plus/minus for something is a huge deal for most working class people, nevermind the additional stress of applying for an uncertain maze of grants, loans and bursaries. Eliminating the fee-and-grant system in favour of free tuition bolstered by new sources of revenue would go a ways towards providing working poor, working class and some middle class students the breathing room to participate in the “ordinary unhappiness” of college life – the exams to sit, papers to write and deadlines to meet.

If we did decide to eliminate tuition, luckily for us, we already have a system for means-testing the rich: the tax system. Of course, the incentives for proving that you’re rich versus proving that you’re poor are completely opposite. If you can pay less when the tax collector thinks you’re poor… well, then that’s what a good accountant, and for the select few, an account in the Caymans is for. The plague of global tax evasion bears this out. The difference is that the rich have the means to have others make them seem poor, while the poor have to waste their time, energy and already meager resources proving that they really are.

The technical possibilities for how tuition-free education could be funded are numerous – should university be paid out of general revenues, a special surtax, something else? – but they are not the stumbling block. Also, if anything, it could well be the case that (1) is less costly for society to administer than (2). And, as recent history has shown repeatedly, it is all too easy to claw back funding and raise fees when access to a service is pay-as-you-go and apply-for-what-you-can. Average tuition and fees have grown threefold over the past twelve years and now make up 37% of total university revenues, compared to 18% those dozen years ago.

The right makes the argument that the student movement for free tuition is a case of a movement captured by the rich to preserve their economic standing and privilege. Free tuition, goes the line, would be a gift to the rich and their children, who currently pay tuition and do not receive public grant funding. Such capture of public services should be fought, but the transformation of higher education into a real public service could do more to counter such capture than all the complex payment schemes currently on offer. One of the points of increasing access is changing the composition of the student body. More to the point, if free tuition is such a clever ploy by the rich and powerful, funny that it hasn’t seen the light of day on this continent and fees continue to rise.

For all the talk of disinterested policy that can flexibly adapt the best “solutions”, the actual range of possibilities admitted into elite discourse is very narrow. For all the concern for “the poor”, there is little of the much-ballyhooed flexibility and innovation in ideas. The ideas are tired and the concern seems more like crocodile tears. It’s telling that with all refined ways of nudging people, our policy wizards cannot but imagine something that is too far from the current elaborate maze of fees and offsets – something that changes outcomes, but also lived experience and could ultimately have a tangible effect on social power.

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