On Campus

The politics of tuition fees and access

Solving access more complicated than dropping tuition fees

The Educational Policy Institute’s Alex Usher discusses the relationship between tuition fees and post-secondary education access in his latest EPI Week in Review commentary. Here’s an excerpt from Usher’s on-line column:

The biggest canard, of course, is that tuition raises are immoral because they endanger access. It’s elementary economics right? If you raise the price, demand decreases, right? Stands to reason. The problem is that the evidence for this isn’t very good. Consider:

  • Internationally, participation rates of low- or zero-tuition countries tend to be equal to or lower than those of higher-tuition countries. Even within countries, this is true: Nova Scotia’s tuition rate is three times higher than Quebec’s, but participation is still higher.
  • Low or zero-tuition countries don’t even have the benefit of saying that their systems are more equitable or open to lower-income students. There’s no evidence at all to suggest this, and indeed there’s some evidence to the contrary.

Why is this? Simple: because student aid programs, by and large, work.

The latter point is especially important, but the level of assistance that is currently available is not working for everyone. Consider, for example, that while inflation-adjusted tuition fees at my university are lower than they were over a decade ago, there are still a number of disadvantaged populations who are significantly under-represented in our classes (e.g., low-income youth, Aboriginal peoples, people with disabilities).

The reasons for this continuing inequity are far more complex than the price of tuition fees alone. It is perhaps most important to recognize that decisions to participate in post-secondary education are influenced by the various forms of capital that students possess including academic, cultural, financial and social capital. As a result, strategies for more universal participation must go beyond the issue of sticker price and conceptualize access more comprehensively.