Free tuition alone won’t make college any more accessible

Subsidy to the richest students

The data above point to the glaring disparity between the rich and poor’s ability to access education in SUCs. To the extent that government surveys typically fail to capture responses from the richest households, the degree of education inequality may actually be larger.

If financial access were the only problem, then free tuition may help the poor access SUCs more. But this is not the case. Public colleges, unlike public elementary and high schools, almost always screen students using other criteria (e.g., admission tests and high school grades).

Hence, perhaps a more important policy issue to address is why the richest students can better access SUCs in the first place, and why they edge out their poorer counterparts.

If we don’t help poor but bright students hurdle other aspects of “accessibility”, then free tuitions will do little to help them. In fact, the benefits from free tuitions will only accrue more to the rich than the poor.

Lifetime of preparation

The truth is, the poorest students today are edged out in SUCs due to many disadvantages they face in their early years.

Rich students usually find themselves being propelled through their education with the full, undivided support of their family, relatives, and community. They are likelier to be enrolled in exclusive schools with top facilities; likelier to be exposed to numerous extracurriculars and sports; and likelier to be paired with tutors whenever they encounter difficulties in school.

In contrast, poor students usually find themselves in more challenging situations. They are likelier to be enrolled in public schools with more crowded classrooms and subpar facilities; likelier to take on odd jobs to help in family finances; and likelier to study by themselves without the benefit of expensive tutors.

Such disadvantages are magnified by the relatively poor quality of public education, which has dragged the nation’s overall educational quality. Figure 2 shows that, although strides have been made in the past decade, the quality of math and science education in the Philippines still ranks among the worst in the region.

Figure 2. Source: World Economic Forum, Global Competitiveness Report 2016-2017.

Of course, some public schools are of top-notch quality (e.g., science high schools). But today it is not uncommon to find some very rich families sending their kids to these public schools to boost their chances of admission in the top universities. Even at this level, rich students “crowd out” or compete away slots from poor but bright students.

The inequality extends to college admission preparations: rich parents are usually more aware of college admission processes (forms, fees, schedules) and also enroll their children in specialized review classes where they can take simulated college entrance exams.

In contrast, poor parents in some cases may even be unaware of such admission processes and lack resources to enroll their children in review classes. Without these, poor parents are less able to prepare their children for college the way rich parents can.

We need to address more strongly these disparities between the early lives of rich and poor students. Otherwise, we should not be surprised that rich students are the ones in SUCs, not poor students.

Some programs already aim to bridge such inequalities of opportunity.

For instance, this is precisely the rationale behind Pantawid Pamilya, which incentivizes very poor parents to send their children to school, with the end goal of breaking the transmission of poverty across generations.

The K to 12 program is yet another intervention in basic education, albeit with a slightly different objective: to expand job opportunities and reduce the “education-skills mismatch” in the country. However, K to 12 still suffers from large shortfalls of teachers and facilities, and it will take longer for the program to help students better prepare for college or otherwise.

Free college tuition not enough

Many people see public college education as a great “equalizer” of Philippine society: a system that can help reduce the gaps between the richest and poorest Filipinos. But as things stand, SUCs are inequitable and accessed more by the richest students than the poorest.

There’s no denying that high tuition fees are an important barrier in SUC education. But rather than just subsidize tuition fees, our lawmakers should address “accessibility” in a much broader sense. That is, they should aim at the problems faced by poor students as early as their elementary and high school years, not when they are already in college.

If we fail to adequately tackle these early disadvantages, then free tuition fees will do little to make public college education the “equalizer” we all hope it to be. –

The author is a PhD student and teaching fellow at the UP School of Economics. His views do not necessarily reflect the views of his affiliations.


JC Punongbayan

JC Punongbayan is a PhD candidate and teaching fellow at the UP School of Economics. His views are independent of the views of his affiliations.