Are Free Classes Easier to Give Up?


Responding to Tuesday’s article on simple messaging and the power of “free” as a simple message, an alert reader wrote with the hypothesis that students may be more inclined to add and drop classes with glee. if they did not pay the tuition fees.

I doubt it a little, although it is ultimately an empirical question. I would especially like to hear from readers in Tennessee, where a free community college has been established on a large scale long enough to see the effects.

The “yes” argument revolves around what we know about the sunk cost error. People who paid for their tickets for a concert in advance are more likely to go, even if they are in a bad mood and the weather is bad, than people who got the tickets for free. This is because if they skip something that they have paid for, they feel like they have lost money. The truth is, the money is spent whether they go or not, but the feelings are what they are. Once the money has been spent (“sunk”), there is a determination to get something back.

Still, I don’t think the sunk cost argument would apply so much to classes. It’s because I don’t think that being free of schooling means being free.

As those of us who attend community colleges are well aware, most students work a significant number of hours per week for pay. The time they spend in class is time they cannot devote to paid work. (For in-person classes, add the time and expense to travel to and from campus on a regular basis.) Even though students don’t have to pay for classes, they still bear the opportunity cost of the hours. lost work.

On the contrary, removing tuition fees can allow students to spend slightly fewer hours working for pay. This would allow more attention to the class, more study and greater achievement; success, in turn, tends to encourage retention. This observation is consistent with studies of what happens when classes move from commercial textbooks to open educational resources (OER). Most of us have seen students try to complete a course without buying a book in order to save money. This leads to high failure rates leading to problems with financial aid etc. When the material is free, success rates improve. This is because suddenly every student can afford to access the material. No one tries to skate without the book.

I guess the same principle would apply to classes. Students who can afford to devote the time to classes and studies are likely to be more likely to be successful than students who scramble just to pay for tuition and books. The whole #RealCollege movement is based on this idea, and its results are encouraging.

Yet an empirical question is exactly that. Wise, worldly readers in places with great, long-standing free community college programs – Tennessee, I’m watching you – have you seen a significant increase in the number of students flocking to classrooms? Or are the students more likely to stick around, given that they have more time to do the job?


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