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Graduate Defense: Thomas Sharpe

March 9 @ 10:30 am - 11:30 am MST

Thesis Defense

Thesis Information

Title: The Impact of Free Tuition on Course-Level Student Outcomes

Program: Master of Science in Economics

Advisor: Dr. Kelly Chen, Economics

Committee Members: Dr. Michail Fragkias, Economics, and Dr. Samia Islam, Economics


The United States has experienced a substantial increase in tuition rates for higher education. At the national level free tuition at two-year public institutions has been one solution proposed by various leaders.

The College of Southern Idaho (CSI) is a two-year public institution with an emphasis on serving the eight county South Central Idaho region. In the Summer of 2021, a year into the COVID pandemic, CSI leveraged federal COVID support funds to implement “First Eight on Us”. This first-dollar program provided students with up to eight credits for free, with minimal requirements. Then, in Summer 2022, a revised “First Six on Us” program was offered.

The objective of this study was to explore the impact of a single semester of free tuition on various student outcomes. Outcomes considered included effort and course quality, which was aggregated from course evaluation data. In addition, grades in courses and subsequent enrollment in non-free semesters at CSI were analyzed using student information system data. For each outcome measure, a regression was performed to isolate the impact of free tuition. The independent variables in question were dichotomous variables for participation in First Eight on Us and First Six on Us. Control variables considered included student course-taking behavior, student demographics, course modality, instructor experience, and semester and academic year fixed effects.

This analysis found the First Eight on Us program led to increased enrollment, moderate decrease in average grades, minor drop in self reported effort, little-to-no impact on the perception of course quality, no impact in the percent of new student retention and, due to enrollment growth, an increase in the total number of new students retained into non-free semesters.

Future research could expand on the retention measures and examine the impact of free tuition on graduation and transfer rates. In addition, CSI is considering continuing the free summer tuition program in some form. This would potentially allow for additional data and due diligence on the topic.