Making the Case for Tuition-Free Higher Education European Institutions Graduate 11% More Than U.S.

“High college cost is a threat to Idaho’s economy at a time when
employers are demanding a more educated workforce.”
—Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy

Denmark’s Higher Education Reforms

In 1966 I traveled to Denmark as a Rotary Foundation Fellow for the year. As I settled in my dorm at the University of Copenhagen, I was surprised to learn that only a small percentage of young Danes were pursuing academic studies.

Drawing primarily from the American model, the Danish government gradually reformed its higher education system. Now, 40 percent of Danes have the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree and 17 percent have advanced degrees. The average among the industrialized Organization for Economic and Community Development countries is even higher at 45 percent.

Danes pursuing degrees and earning passing grades pay no tuition, and they receive a monthly stipend of about $900. Two dozen countries join Denmark in offering free university education, which also applies for international students in 10 countries.

Taking advantage of free tuition, over 187,000 American students matriculated at European institutions in 2017-18, and many are enrolled in classes taught in English. Only three of the 25 nations restrict free tuition to students from the 28-member European Union.

Once First, U.S. Now 17th for Degrees

Once first in the world for college degrees, the U.S. has now dropped to 17th among OECD countries. Our graduation rate is now 34 percent with 11 percent obtaining advanced degrees. Rising tuition and fees are the main reasons for this decline.

At a time when the labor force needs more employees with a college degree, the percentage of Americans in this category has fallen from 36 percent in 2015 to 34 percent in 2018. Idaho now stands at 26 percent in contrast to Washington (36), California (35), Oregon (34), and Montana (33).

Idaho Among the Lowest for College Degrees

One reason that Idahoans have so few college degrees is that only 45 percent of high school graduates choose to attend any of the state’s higher education institutions. (The national “go-on” rate is 67 percent.) Once there only 66 percent of Idaho’s college students survive their second year.

In 1980, only 7 percent of Idaho college and university budgets were from tuition and fees, but today it is 47 percent, just under the national average of 50 percent. The national average in 1980 was 20 percent, so for years Idaho students were fortunate to have such generous support from their state.

In 1980 the average tuition for Idaho college and universities was $1,300, but today it is $7,800, which is a 1200 percent increase. At my alma mater Oregon State, I paid $70 per quarter from 1962-66 and scholarships covered it and more.

State Education Board Freezes Tuition

In late 2019 the Idaho State Broad of Education voted in late 2019 to freeze tuition at the state’s colleges and universities. While this move certainly helps cash-strapped students, it does not address the precipitous decline in state support.

University of Idaho Faces $22 Million Deficit

The University of Idaho, for example, is facing a $22 million deficit over two years, and the loss of about $3 million in tuition will make reducing that amount even more difficult. Even worse is the fact that Idaho Governor Brad Little has requested a 3 percent decrease in his proposed FY21 higher education budget. Members of JFAC have reduced that to 2 percent, but it is still a blow to maintaining sustainable educational institutions.

Even with meager financial incentives, 112 UI faculty and staff have agreed to leave their jobs. Realizing the random effect that such a policy produces, UI President Scott Green admits that many of these positions will have to be refilled. After years of financial crises, it is a wonder that some Idaho faculty do not suffer from PTSD.

Free Tuition: Progressive vs. Moderate Candidates

Among the Democratic presidential candidates there is a split between progressives Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who are proposing tuition-free higher education, and moderates Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, who want to exclude wealthy students.

Buttigieg promises that those students from household earning less than $100,000 (70 percent of households) will pay no tuition. Sanders also wildly promises to cancel all student debt, which has now reached an unsustainable $1.52 trillion.

Eliminating Tax Credits Equals Half of Tuition Costs

Although the moderate position sounds more reasonable and financially prudent, Bryce Covert from The Nation journal argues that it actually is not. In 2017 total public college tuition and fees amounted to $76 billion, while federal spending on college financial aid and tax credits was more than twice that at $160 billion.

The largest federal expense for higher education is the $34 billion that goes to tax credits. Of this amount the wealthiest students receive tax relief that it is three times that of the poorest students. For example, annual costs at Harvard are now $46,300, but with federal aid and tax credits subtracted, the average for all private institutions is reduced to $27,400.

Eliminating the tax credits would fund almost half the dollars that states now charge for tuition, and extra savings might be wrung from $126 billion that is left. The next largest portion of the budget is the Pell Grants for needy students, which Congress should protect from cuts proposed by the Trump Administration.

A President Sanders or Warren could make up the remainder of the tuition costs by raising taxes on the wealthy, which would more than make up for the rich students benefiting from free tuition at public institutions. Only one percent of those students come from the wealthiest one percent.

No One Dies for Lack of a College Degree, but . . .

The rejection of federal funds for Medicaid expansion has caused an estimated 16,000 Red State residents to suffer unnecessary deaths. Although people do not die for lack of a college degree, they do have poorer health and shorter longevity. They also miss out on job opportunities and the extra earnings those jobs provide. Furthermore, the economies of their states will lag behind those that produce more college graduates.

Finally, a President Sanders or Warren would have to convince the presidents of public colleges and universities. A dozen met recently in New York City, and although they definitely wanted more federal support, they were all cool to the tuition-free concept.

Nick Gier of Moscow taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years. He is also President of the Higher Education Council of the Idaho Federation of Teachers, AFT/AFL-CIO. Read his other articles on higher education at, but the first eight extensions requires this URL: He can be reached at

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