Are high tuition costs justified by educational value?

High cost does not reflect educational value
Students get corresponding educational value with higher fees
February 3, 2021
Oluwatobi Olaniran

What’s it about tuition costs?

There are several countries including Germany, Sweden and Finland that offer a tuition-free education system to the tertiary level. On the other hand, tuition fees have increased at alarming rates in the tuition paying countries such as the US and UK, due to massive cuts in state funding and higher enrolment rates.

Do tuition fees make a difference?

Countries with high tuition fees claim to offer higher educational standards than tuition-free ones. However, reports show that tuition-free countries have equally competitive educational standards. Therefore, the question about whether high tuition costs can be justified by educational value is an important question to ask.

Before we start, let’s define what educational value is:

A paper by UNESCO identifies knowledge, skills, and value as three markers that determine educational value. Thus, every university curriculum must directly reflect these three aspects to translate to excellent educational value for students.

1. University degrees boost employability

A direct value of higher education is its opportunity for employment. In tuition paying countries, there is a positive relationship between graduate employability and tuition fees. As an extension, the highest ranking universities globally are from two major tuition paying countries - the US and the UK.

The edge...

These universities including Harvard University and Oxford University are the oldest, most established and reputable universities in the world. They offer quality education taught by well-renowned academic professors, which in turn equip their students with high level skills and knowledge upon graduation. The identified education quality and the brand reputations of such universities make top level firms including investment banks, and management consulting firms vie to recruit them upon graduation.

What does this translate to?

Graduates from top-ranking universities earn more than their colleagues throughout their careers. For example, the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania requires students to pay an annual tuition of $76,580 and in turn gives them the potential to earn up to $184,600 yearly in their mid-careers.

2. Universities with high tuition fees are able to provide more resources per student

Tuition was once free in the UK but as student enrollments increased rapidly, education quality was at risk. Consequently, there was a 25% drop in institutional resources per student between 1987 and 1994.

As the decline in educational quality progressed, the government tried limiting enrolments but it wasn’t enough as student funding plunged and socioeconomic gaps widened in student enrolments. By 1998, legislation was passed to switch from a free tertiary education system to a capped paid tuition system with an income-contingent loan structure.

So, how does paying tuition improve quality?

Institutional spending per student in the UK has since increased. An OECD study establishes that institutional spending per student serves as a proxy for educational quality because it avails the university the best teachers and a vast amount of academic and research resources to train each student.


As global student enrollment is projected to hit 594 million by 2040, it is safe to conclude that countries running a free education system cannot sustain for long. By understudying the UK educational template, countries can continue to provide quality education by increasing tuition costs and providing income-contingent loan repayment systems. 

1. Tuition costs should reduce with online learning during a pandemic

Educational institutions much like other businesses are experiencing the negative economic impacts of the pandemic due to revenue losses from physical campus life. In the UK, Universities UK — a coalition of 137 U.K. universities — moved to obtain a bailout package from the government.

The UK government rejected the bailout proposal stating through its universities minister that students don’t need to be reimbursed as long as the quality of educational students are receiving remains the same.

The facts say otherwise...

These universities are justifying tuition fees on the basis that they are investing heavily on online and remote learning models and maintaining current salary structures. However, this means students are paying to bridge the financial gap created by the pandemic and not their educational experience.

How so?

With many students and families lacking steady incomes and equal access to stimulus checks during the pandemic, it is difficult to pay maintained fees and invest in updated learning resources such as appropriate gear, internet connection, and functional spaces. The lack of direct supervision and support from lecturers positions students for less educational value.

2. Quality university education can be free or lower with a diversified educational system

US and UK universities are experiencing unprecedented population growths because of the single pathway of their educational systems. In the US, students spend 12 years for primary and secondary education in preparation for a tertiary education while the UK requires students and pupils to go through the primary and secondary education ahead of their GCSE and A-levels exams. 

Since there are no options, students who perform poorly in their upper secondary education experience lesser educational value when they enrol in universities and eventually drop out or finish with lower class degrees.

How are other countries dealing with this?

Comparatively, countries like Sweden, Finland and Germany run diversified educational systems which allow students to choose between a vocational education path and a general education path. Here, the vocational education path prepares students to take up skills in various careers over a shorter period while general education students matriculate into universities.

A flexible alternative...

Students don’t have to miss out on either option as there is enough flexibility between both paths. Therefore, the contest is not about whether or not to go to the university instead it is about providing optimised higher education for students based on their ability and skills. Consequently, tuition in these countries is kept at a minimum or totally free.

The debate on high tuition costs remains an ongoing global debate with detractors citing examples of countries that offer free education to both citizens and international students. Yet, tuition paying countries tout their educational standard as a reason to maintain the fees even in a pandemic. 

A question for you: Since neither party has come to a consensus, do you think high tuition costs can be justified by educational value?

Disclaimer: We are by no means supporting one side of the argument over the other. We collate different views and expand on them to give you a better understanding of the motivation behind these views.
Photo credit: QuinceCreative (pixabay)
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