Effect of free college on philanthropy

Joel B. Munson

As thousands of Vancouver-area students head back to colleges and universities this autumn, many of the students and their families are increasingly worried about the rising costs of tuition.

We have all heard the dire news about the debt students accumulate while they attend higher education institutions. The average student will have to come up with more than $16,000 to pay for an associate degree, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. On the political front, mounting college debt is one of the main topics of debate. Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has promised free tuition for qualifying community college students. Regardless of party affiliation, many Americans believe something has to be done to address the $1.3 trillion in unpaid education debt.

But is free tuition at public higher education institutions the answer?

Unfortunately, there is no easy solution. That’s because the costs of college aren’t just a financial issue, but a cultural one, as well. Specifically, there is growing anecdotal evidence to suggest that free college tuition may affect society in two distinct ways: first, there is growing concern that some college graduates might feel differently about the value of their free education; others argue that the public might not continue to support education in the same way philanthropically if they know the government is paying for students’ tuition.

Currently in the United States, only religious institutions receive more philanthropic support than education. According to The Chronicle of Philanthropy, donors gave more than $37 billion to American colleges and universities in 2014. Much of that support was in the form of scholarships that cover or defray the high costs of tuition.

Locally, for the first time in its 43-year history, Clark College Foundation will distribute more than $1 million in annual scholarship support, thanks to the generosity of alumni and friends of the institution.

Most public college and universities rely heavily on fundraising as state and federal governments continue to reduce higher education funding. Some charitable and academic leaders worry that if governments reverse course and take on the role of providing free tuition, donors might decide that their support is no longer needed – not just in regard to scholarships, but other areas such as faculty, capital and technological support.

At the same time, other academic experts are concerned that some graduates will look at their alma maters – and indeed their diplomas – in a much different way if they are not at least partially responsible for paying for their degrees. John Ebersol, president of Excelsior College, recently commented in Forbes that free college education might come at a serious risk.

“If students don’t perceive value in the credentials, they may not remain committed to their attainment; a degree that costs nothing could be valued accordingly,” he said.

Some higher education advancement professionals, myself included, worry that alumni who consider their degrees less valuable, because they didn’t have to pay toward them, will be less likely to become engaged with those institutions in future years. And if they are not engaged, they are much less likely to support their college through regular giving.

In England, where tuition fees have only been instituted in the past 10 years, the percentage of alumni giving to universities is significantly lower than in the U.S. Those of us who moved to the United Kingdom to help institute fundraising programs in higher education after the government ended its funding support are convinced that giving levels are lower, in part, because too many older U.K. alumni view their public higher education experience as more of an entitlement than a well-earned, personal investment.

While no one is arguing against addressing the soaring costs of higher education, serious research on the effect of free tuition for community colleges and universities is critically necessary to help society determine how best to support higher education opportunities for students now and well into the future.

Joel B. Munson is Clark College Foundation’s senior vice president of development. He has worked in higher education for 24 years. A senior executive at various universities and colleges, Munson has led development teams that have raised approximately $1 billion in philanthropic funds. Before joining the foundation, he worked in the United Kingdom where he helped to build advancement programs at two major universities.