Offering tuition-free college education “will do little to fix the larger problem” of the worrying rate of drop-outs at public institutions, stated a new U.S. report on higher education.

According to Third Way, a think tank based in Washington, simply addressing the rising cost of tertiary education was not the same as ensuring that students are being equipped with the degrees and skills they need to succeed in life.

Analyzing data from the Department of Education, the think tank found that 51.7 percent out of the over 6.8 million students who are attending four-year public institutions across the country are likely to not finish their degree within six years.

In addition to that, out of the 535 four-year public colleges and universities for which data was available, researchers found that nearly 6 in 10 institutions are failing to graduate a majority of their first-time, full-time students, labelling such institutions as “drop-out factories”.

The report’s lead author and education policy adviser at Third Way, Tamara Hiler, noted that as nearly two-thirds out of all college students take out student loans in order to finance their education, this was a poor return on investment.

“While so much of the conversation on college over the last decade has focused on cost, the analysis of outcomes data provided both here and in our previous report on the private, non-profit institutions highlights the need to have a much more honest conversation about which colleges are in fact providing value to students,” Hiler wrote.

The report found that not all public institutions are value for money – in fact, at many institutions, a large number of graduates have found themselves unable to earn wages higher than the typical high school graduate, and many cannot pay back the loans they’ve taken out, leaving them more than US$20,000 in debt.

Instead, Hiler and her co-authors asked policymakers to shift the conversation to focus on the value an institution can provide students, rather than tuition costs, as some of the schools providing the best value in terms of graduation rates, graduate earnings, and loan repayment rates actually cost the least.

The report revealed that the average top-quartile school – or those with good outcomes for students – charges US$600 less compared to the average bottom-quartile school, or those with the worst outcomes for students.

“While addressing the rising costs of college is a worthwhile discussion, students deserve a better guarantee that if they enroll in college, they will get a return on their investment of both time and money,” added Hiler.  

This latest report is the second in a series of studies that aim to look into the value of different types of higher education institutions.

The first report, released in May, focused on the issue of quality at private, for-profit colleges and universities, finding that only 55 percent of first-time, full-time students who take out federal loans graduate within six years, and at 41 percent of the private colleges, half or fewer students earn a degree.

According to Third Way, its aim in publishing these reports was not to steer students away from attending college, but to “refocus the national conversation around higher education” towards the changes that need to be made to ensure students, and taxpayers, are getting true value from their investment.

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