Ireland: A Cautionary Tale about Free College

There are lessons to be learned from Ireland’s quarter century of experience with free tuition.

U.S. educators have known for years we have a lot to learn from other countries about K-12 education. When it comes to higher education, however, there is a tendency to think that we have more to teach than to learn because of the high standing of America’s colleges and universities on the world stage.

But the possible impact of free tuition may be a notable exception. A report co-authored by Jason Delisle and myself and just published by the American Enterprise Institute suggests that we have a lot to learn from Ireland, both good and bad. (

In response to intense political pressure, Ireland eliminated tuition for full-time university undergraduates beginning in the mid-1990s. Irish tuition, which at the time were 20 percent higher than what was being charged at U.S. flagships, was replaced with a system of registration fees for all students. The registration fee was initially about US$200 but now is about US$3600, a ten-fold increase in real terms. At the same time, Ireland instituted government payments-in-lieu-of-fees to institutions to offset some of the lost tuition.

The hope in Ireland then was pretty much what free-tuition advocates now hope for here: more students enrolled in college, better access for the disadvantaged, and more degrees leading to more graduates in the workforce — all while maintaining or improving the quality of higher education.

What did the Irish get from free tuition regimen?

Funding and Resources. Higher education funding in Ireland since the mid-1990s in the absence of tuition has experienced a pattern of boom and bust. Resources per student have tended to grow when the economy was booming, and declined during economic downturns, as revenues from tuition charged to some students and registration fees from all students couldn’t keep up with cuts in government funding. Over the full 25-year period, spending per student increased modestly when adjusted for inflation. By contrast, spending per student in the U.S. doubled in real terms over the same time period.

But the growth in resources devoted to Irish higher education have lagged behind Irish economic growth. As a result, higher education spending as a share of GDP in Ireland, which has traditionally been low by international standards, declined further between 1995 to 2015, while higher education’s share of GDP was increasing in many other industrialized countries.

Participation. Enrollments in Irish higher education have doubled since free tuition was introduced, fueled both by one of the fastest growing populations in Europe and an increase in the college going rate from one-third in the 1990s to more than one-half in recent years. With an expanding college-age population, demand for college would likely have grown anyway, but free tuition was an important contributor to the increase in the college going rate.

Equity of Access. Improving access for disadvantaged students was a principal motivation for free tuition in Ireland. Yet the data indicate that there has been limited progress on that front. To be sure, students from low-income families participate more in Irish higher education than they did two decades ago, but they remain much less likely to enroll than students from wealthier families, especially at the most selective universities.

Degree Completion. The number of undergraduate degrees conferred has grown by roughly two-thirds since free tuition came along — a result of the increase in the college going rate and the maintenance of a degree-completion rate exceeding 80 percent. The ability of Ireland to maintain high completion rates while sharply increasing access is probably due largely to its centralized selective admissions process.

Degree Attainment. The most remarkable Irish achievement since tuition was eliminated was the tripling in the attainment rate — the share of workers who hold a college degree. As a result, Ireland now has one of the highest attainment rates in the world. In this respect, Ireland is viewed as one of the great success stories over the past quarter century.

But a careful look at the data suggests that the Irish attainment rate explosion was more a function of immigration patterns than any investment in Irish higher education. Ireland has a long history of importing large numbers of well-educated workers who earned their college degrees in other countries.

This was especially true during the so-called Celtic Tiger era at the end of the 20th century and into the first part of the 21st Century, when knowledge-intensive and high-tech companies became key drivers of the Irish economy. As a result, foreign-born workers in Ireland have a much higher attainment rate than native-born workers. This is in contrast to many other OECD countries, including the U.S., where the attainment rate of native-born workers typically exceeds that of foreign-born workers.

Education Quality. The Irish record for providing a high-quality higher education system is mixed. An institution-based quality assurance program and qualifications framework get very good grades in international discussions. But the modest growth in resources combined with much more rapid growth in enrollments over time has put major strains on the system, contributing to higher student/faculty ratios and deterioration of many facilities and equipment. While quality in higher education is hard to measure, many believe that that Irish higher education quality has suffered in some significant ways since free tuition was introduced.

Lessons for the U.S.

The experience in Ireland has a number of lessons for the U.S. as it explores free college options. These lessons include:

  • To be successful, a tuition-free college system demands sustained high levels of government investment to replace the tuition students would have paid and to increase resources beyond that. Without such a sustained commitment, quality will suffer especially if enrollments grow rapidly.
  • It is also clear from the Irish experience that eliminating tuition does not guarantee greater equity of access to college. Without additional measures such as help with living expenses for impoverished students and more counseling services, stratification will continue as students from wealthier families will enroll in larger proportions in the most selective institutions.
  • Not charging tuition does not mean that students will not have to pay anything to go to college. At the time, Ireland’s modest registration fee seemed a reasonable way to ensure at least some costs would still be paid by students. But the growth in fees over time meant that it has effectively replaced a large chunk of what would have been tuition. In this regard, Ireland is similar to California and some other states where tuition is not charged but fees can be steep.
  • The remarkable growth in the share of workers with a college degree in Ireland since free tuition policies were adopted has been much more a function of economic development policies and immigration trends than any investment or lack thereof in the higher education system.
  • Finally, the creation in Ireland of a government-paid fee to institutions to replace some of the fees that students would have paid was a good idea. But the aggregate amount of funding for these fees has been capped since the program was created, meaning that as enrollments grew, the per- student payment declined, leaving growing institutions strapped for cash. A per-student fee that remained constant with the growth in enrollments would have been a better approach.

All in all, the experience in Ireland with free tuition over the past quarter century contains a number of important lessons as various states in the U.S. consider free college proposals.

Art Hauptman has been a public policy consultant specializing in domestic and international higher ed finance issues for nearly a half century.

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