Like Travis, I think this is great. I’ll predict a few effects.
One, there will be significantly more lower-and-normal-income students in high-end schools. The typical “free tuition” cutoff in this trend is $60,000 – that figure is well above the median household income in the U.S., and at the top 146 schools, 74 percent of students come from households in the top quarter of income. That’s a huge gap, and while perfect proportionality will never happen (high-income parents tend to transmit their high IQs, pro-education culture, etc.), there’s a ton of room to move in that direction. Harvard’s 2004 program – which merely lowered tuition for poorer students; it wasn’t until 2006 they made admission free – increased enrollment from sub-$60,000 households by 24 percent.
Two, as Travis mentioned, there will be social pressure for other schools to follow suit. No one wants to fall behind others in the generosity contest.
Three, it will be tougher to get into a top school. A larger pool of potential Ivy League attendees means more competition for the (basically) fixed number of slots.
Finally, there’s a financial incentive not to join the trend. By making tuition free, not only do you get to charge less per poor student (using “poor” incredibly loosely here), but you attract more poor students.
Given how rich and image-conscious these institutions are, I don’t see the financial aspect winning, but I’ll be interested to see how far down the prestige chain this trend works itself.