Is free college education a waste?
Access to quality higher education is not just a privilege but a fundamental right, crucial for fostering social and economic progress. The 1987 Philippine Constitution, particularly Article XIV, Section 1, underscores this, mandating the State to protect and promote the right to quality education at all levels and ensure its accessibility to everyone.
In recent years, the Philippines has taken significant steps towards providing free higher education, with the aim of empowering its citizens and bolstering national development through enhanced social capital. A milestone in this journey was the enactment of Republic Act No. 10931, or the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, in 2017. Signed into law by then-President Rodrigo Duterte, this groundbreaking legislation abolished tuition and other fees in state and local universities and colleges (SUCs and LUCs), targeting economically disadvantaged families. This move was driven by the intention to democratize higher education.
This paper examines the complexities surrounding free higher education in the Philippines, offering a data-driven analysis of its current state and future prospects, in light of the divergent views of national leaders.
Looking at the brief history and current state of free higher education in the Philippines, the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) reports a 14% increase in enrollment in higher education institutions from 2016 to 2019. This surge, a direct consequence of the new law, reflects improved access to college education. Additionally, the graduation rates from SUCs and LUCs have seen an 8-10% increase, contributing to a more educated workforce, fulfilling the promise of the legislation. Notably, the number of LUCs has risen dramatically, from an estimated 36 in 2000 to around 123 today, or even more.
Before 2000, the Philippines led in private college enrollment, with 85% of students in private institutions and only 15% in public colleges. However, by 2018, the landscape altered significantly, with 46% of students in public institutions, a trend further propelled by the increasing costs of private education.
The Council of Private Educational Associations of the Philippines (COCOPEA) disclosed a 50% decline in private school enrollment for the school year 2020-2021, equivalent to about 2 million students, primarily in basic education. CHED revealed that many of these students shifted to public higher education institutions. As of March this year, CHED Chairman De Vera reported a substantial increase in enrollment in SUCs and LUCs, with more than 2 million beneficiaries of free college education. This growth suggests a potential future shift in the enrollment balance, favoring public institutions.
In light of these trends, the 2024 National Expenditure Program has earmarked P105.6 billion for SUCs and P51.12 billion to continue supporting free tertiary education, expected to benefit 3 million students. This allocation is part of a record education budget for 2024, constituting approximately 16% of the total national budget. With this sustained support from national leadership, an increasing number of senior high school graduates are likely to opt for admission in SUCs and LUCs. Furthermore, the UniFast national subsidy is expected to encourage more local governments to establish new LUCs.
What’s the fuss?
After the graduation of the Alpha Batch through RA 10931, Finance Secretary Benjamin Diokno labeled free college education as unsustainable and a waste of government resources. Diokno, who has been critical of free college education from the start, based his remarks on the dropout rates, which CHED reports as 36.83%. Noting that 4 out of 10 beneficiaries of free college education eventually drop out, Diokno proposed a national examination to determine those “worthy” of the subsidy.
In contrast, CHED Chairman De Vera opposes this proposal, arguing that it would disproportionately disadvantage the poor, as those who typically pass stringent entrance exams like the UPCAT are often from affluent, urban families. In 2018, Albay 2nd District Representative Joey Salceda criticized the initial implementation of the free college education law, terming it “stupid.” Although CHED has improved its systems over the years, dissatisfaction among some lawmakers and opinion-makers remains.
This contrasts with the perspective of many SUCs and LUCs leaders, myself included as a former university president of Pamantasan ng Cabuyao, who have noted the effectiveness of the UniFast mechanisms. CHED’s strict implementation of free college education compels public HEIs to adhere to quality standards, leading to the delisting of some LUCs from receiving national subsidies for failing to meet these standards.
Is free college education truly a waste?
CHED and many national leaders supporting free higher education argue that it promotes social equity, reduces poverty, and enhances the country’s human capital. Research by the Philippine Institute for Development Studies (PIDS) shows that each additional year of education raises an individual’s income by an average of 8.7%, contributing to poverty reduction. Chairman De Vera noted that the Alpha Batch of RA 10931 produced the first college graduates in some Filipino families, who would otherwise never have seen a professional nurse, engineer, or teacher in their lineage.
Globally, only about 22 countries offer free college education, with just 30 states in the US doing the same. Canada does not legalize it, and Australia discontinued it. This raises the question: when 4 out of 10 recipients fail to graduate, is funding the education of the remaining 6 a waste?
Sec. Diokno’s proposition for a national entrance examination is predicated on the assumption that dropping out is due to academic incompetence. However, as a former president of a LUC, I have seen firsthand that financial challenges, not scholastic inability, are the primary reason students drop out. For many students at LUCs, even the non-tuition costs of education are a significant burden.
For example, a student may need about P100 per day for allowances, adding up to about P12,000 per semester. For families of streetsweepers and other low-income occupations, this is a substantial financial strain. If RA 10931 were removed, and a national examination introduced, it would only exacerbate the hopelessness of these poor students.
Therefore, the entrance examinations conducted by individual SUCs and LUCs are sufficient to screen academically prepared students. Such measures ensure that those admitted are deserving, rendering a national examination unnecessary. This system also provides opportunities for those not admitted to pursue alternative educational paths, thereby catering to a broader range of educational needs.
LUC entrance examination will suffice
Sec. Diokno’s concern is to “filter out” academically unprepared students from benefiting from the national subsidy for free college education, hence his emphasis on strengthening the Senior High School (SHS) program. However, this “filtering” process is already in place, as performed by the respective State Universities and Colleges (SUCs) and Local Universities and Colleges (LUCs) through their own admission tests. Consequently, those admitted by the SUCs and LUCs have already undergone academic screening.
For example, at my former university, Pamantasan ng Cabuyao, over 7,000 students annually take the Pamantasan ng Cabuyao College Admission Test (PNC-CAT). Given its capacity, PNC can only admit a little more than 1,000 new students each year. These qualified students have been rigorously selected from the pool of applicants, ensuring that a national entrance examination is redundant. The more than 5,000 applicants who are not admitted are encouraged to enroll in TESDA courses or other ladderized programs, which may lead them to college eventually. This approach was reinforced by the establishment of the Cabuyao Institute of Technology (CI Tech) by former Mayor Mel Gecolea, designed to offer pre-college training programs that can lead to degree programs at PNC.
Some national leaders have raised concerns about the sustainability of free higher education, pointing to potential budget constraints and the need for alternative funding models. The increase in government expenditure on education—from 2.7% of GDP in 2016 to 4.1% in 2021—reflects a significant commitment to education funding. A comparative analysis of countries with free higher education, like Norway and Germany, shows positive impacts on their economies, suggesting that sustainability is attainable.
Securing the future of free higher education in the Philippines requires addressing challenges, exploring sustainable funding mechanisms, and investing in educational quality. LUCs and their Local Government Units (LGUs) are taking this seriously, investing millions of pesos in program accreditation through the Association of Local Colleges and Universities Commission on Accreditation (ALCU-COA).
These quality assurance initiatives are making LUCs increasingly competitive, with some producing board topnotchers, even outperforming well-funded private universities and colleges.
World Bank research indicates that investing in the quality and relevance of education is crucial for maximizing economic returns from education. A recent Social Weather Stations (SWS) survey revealed that 78% of Filipinos support free higher education, highlighting the policy’s public significance.
Free higher education in the Philippines has substantially expanded access, leading to positive socio-economic outcomes. By adopting a data-driven approach to policy formulation and considering the expert opinions of not only national leaders but also LUC education leaders, the country can and should continue investing in public education, ensuring a brighter future for all citizens.
LUC leaders, however, need to be mindful of imposing additional costs on students in the form of miscellaneous fees. The Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of RA 10931 cover only 13 items of these fees, leaving many others to be shouldered by students’ families. While there have been petitions from LUCs to expand the IRR coverage, significant progress in these discussions has been limited.
There is a pressing need for discussions on sustainable funding models that address both sides of the educational cost equation, particularly as family-incurred costs often exceed school matriculation fees. Effective solutions in this area are crucial to maintaining and enhancing the benefits of free higher education for future generations. Such initiatives are likely to lead to a decrease in school dropouts.
To paraphrase Benjamin Franklin, if the government invests in the education of its people, no politician should take away this benefit. Investing in public education is not only beneficial but also cost-effective, as dealing with the consequences of an uneducated youth is far costlier than keeping them in school.
(Dr. Albert D. Madrigal has nearly two decades of experience in Local Universities and Colleges (LUCs) and served as the immediate past university president of Pamantasan ng Cabuyao. He holds accreditation with the Association of Local Colleges and Universities – Commission on Accreditation (ALCU-COA). He has played a pivotal role in establishing several LUCs and presently serves as an education consultant for various public and private colleges and universities. For inquiries, Dr. Madrigal can be reached via email at: email@example.com)