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Lessons From the End of Free College in England

By: Richard Murphy, Judith Scott-Clayton & Gillian Wyness


Lessons From the End of Free College in England

Until 1998, full-time students in England could attend public universities completely free of charge. But concerns about declining quality at public institutions, government mandated caps on enrollment, and sharply rising inequality in college attainment led to a package of reforms which began in 1998, including the introduction of a modest tuition fee. Two decades later, most public universities in England now charge £9,250—equivalent to about $11,380, or 18 percent more than the average sticker price of a U.S. public four-year institution. The typical English bachelor’s degree recipient is now expected to graduate with around £44,000 (approximately $54,918) in student loan debt, more than twice the average for graduates who borrow at U.S. four year institutions.

Has this restructuring of higher education finance over the last 20 years led the English system backwards or forwards in terms of improving quality, quantity, and equity in higher education? This report examines the consequences of ending free college in England, and considers what lessons may be drawn for the U.S. policy conversation. The authors show that at a minimum, ending free college in England has not stood in the way of rising enrollments, and institutional resources per student (one measure of quality) have increased substantially since 1998. Moreover, after many years of widening inequality, socioeconomic gaps in college attainment appear to have stabilized or slightly declined.