Should Students Pay One Flat Fee for a Degree?
Yesterday afternoon, Alex Usher–who regularly blogs for the Globe and Mail on post-secondary education–blogged about an innovative concept proposed by theÂ (now ousted) Liberal PartyÂ in New Brunswick’s recent provincial election campaign.Â The proposal is for universities to charge students one flat fee for the cost of a degree.Â Usher argues in favour of this move on the basis that it would give students and their families “more certainty in pricing.”
Needless to say,Â one’s position on such a policy shouldÂ depend largelyÂ on what that flat rate would amount to.Â I suspect, for example, that most of my brothers and sisters in the student movement would be inclined to favour such a policy if it were a flat fee of, say, $10,000 for a four-year degree (considerably less that the current cost of a four-year degree in most Canadian provinces).Â They’d be much less likely to favour it if it were $75,000.
But assuming for a moment that a new flat-fee system could be revenue neutral in the aggregate (i..e somehow designed not to generate more revenue for universities), I think it has the potential to advantage lower-income students.Â For example, let’sÂ consider a relatively low-income PhD student who does not have much in the way of financial support from family, and little if any funding from their own academic unit or external sources (i.e. SSHRC, CIHR, etc.).Â IÂ believe that a student in this situationÂ is usuallyÂ inclined to take on a good deal of part-time employment–sometimes 25- or 30-hours per week of paid employment.Â All other things equal, such a student will take more years to finish their degree than a well-funded student who takes on little if any paid employment while in school.Â The former will take longer to finish their degree and pay more tuition over the long term.Â Yet, inÂ the end,Â both studentsÂ end up using the same amount ofÂ university resources (i.e. faculty time, library services, etc.).Â Thus, I’ve often wondered:Â sinceÂ there is, in essence, one flat fee requiredÂ to educate a student, why not have one flat tuition fee?
(It is this kind of thinking, in part,Â that resulted in universitiesÂ charging “post-residency fees”–rather than full-fledged “tuition fees”–to graduate students who had finished their course work but continued to work on their thesis.Â Since the 1990s, however,Â manyÂ universities have eliminated such post-residency fees and opted instead to charge full tuition fees to graduate students in the latter stages of their degrees.)
I would also worry, however, what a “flat fee” would mean for students who do not complete their degrees.Â If a person were to drop out of a four-year degree, say, two months into it, it would be rather unfair to charge them the full fee.Â And if provisions were made to not charge the full flat fee to a student in such a situation, then it wouldn’t be a flat fee, would it?