A shiny but short-lived gift

It’s the Christmas season and Congress has given us a sparkly gift: free tuition in state universities and colleges (SUCs). It’s an P8-billion boon that could potentially improve every Filipino’s life. But as someone whose life education changed for the better, I worry that free tuition in SUCs might just be a flashy fireworks display, unable to deliver postcollege success.

I speak from experience. Through a mix of luck, hard work, and support, I graduated from arguably the best universities in the world and now make a decent living doing what I love. But financial anxiety constantly hounded my educational experience. I am the eldest of five children, raised in the province by parents who believe that education is our ticket to a better life. While we were not poor, I grew up in a financially unstable environment. I was always afraid that I would have to drop out at any moment because we couldn’t afford the tuition and other costs of schooling. There were numerous times when my performance was affected because a school project was too expensive.

Thus, let’s not forget that tuition is not the total cost of college. Most fees are actually charged as “miscellaneous fees.” Counting out-of-pocket costs like transportation, food, uniforms, and books, the total cost becomes too steep to many.

A study commissioned by Philippine Business for Education shows that tuition accounts for only 40 to 70 percent of the total college cost per year. It is clear that while free tuition might crack the college door open for many Filipinos, getting to stay until one graduates is an entirely more expensive story. With the Commission on Higher Education’s calculation of P60,000 as total annual cost, it would be difficult for a poor student to afford the P18,000 to P36,000 in other costs. If the poor would end up dropping out because of other fees, how helpful, really, is free tuition in SUCs?

Gallup-Purdue measures postcollege success as a mix of employment, work engagement, and professional development that requires a meaningful college experience and an actual degree.

In my case, more important was the quality of education I received to get me where I am today, as my schools’ liberal arts education suited my skills, interests, and future plans.

Unfortunately, this is not the case for many Filipinos, proving that mere college attendance is not enough for a successful postcollege life. The national youth unemployment rate (14.1 percent in 2016) is almost triple the unemployment rate (5.7 percent). And half of unemployed Filipinos have some college education.

Underemployment is an even bigger problem, with 17.9 percent reportedly wanting more work. Ironically, employers are having difficulty finding the employees they need to be competitive.

Congress should not stop at free tuition in SUCs and think about building a system that ensures success for every Filipino. Delivering on the promise of college requires strategic and innovative policies. How about empowering students to choose the school and program that fit their needs, interests, and future plans? Other countries like Australia offer excellent models of higher education vouchers. Other than a lump-sum dole to SUCs, maybe the P8 billion could be used to make colleges compete on their ability to reach the poor and disadvantaged, and to graduate and ensure gainful employment for its students. Additionally, consider leveraging these funds to encourage more partnerships in training, standards setting, and program accreditation. The private sector has repeatedly declared its keenness to partner with government in human capital development.

Free tuition is a blessing that urgently needs to be felt, particularly by the poor. But it is not enough. What we don’t want is for this shiny gift to end up raising people’s hopes with a shortsighted promise of college access, only for these hopes to turn into dust, like the fireworks we light up this holiday season: noisy and bright, but dangerously short-lived.

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