Make college ‘free’? Not so fast

Bernie Sanders

To hear the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, you would think the entire left side of the political spectrum is in lockstep agreement about making college “free,” or close to it. But that’s not true. Although I’m still waiting for the first Democrat/liberal/progressivist to acknowledge that their side of the aisle is arguing about price without any regard to the underlying issue of cost, there is nonetheless a good argument against “free college” made by The New Republic’s Matt Bruenig.

After sorting through some of the various definitions of and justifications for “free college,” Bruenig makes a couple of important observations that you’d have expected more liberals to make:

“The main problem with free college is that most students come from disproportionately well-off backgrounds and already enjoy disproportionately well-off futures, which makes them relatively uncompelling targets for public transfers. At age nineteen, only around 20 percent of children from the poorest 2 percent of families in the country attend college. For the richest 2 percent of families, the same number is around 90 percent. In between these two extremes, college attendance rates climb practically straight up the income ladder: the richer your parents are, the greater the likelihood that you are in college at age nineteen. The relatively few poor kids who do attend college heavily cluster in two-year community colleges and cheaper, less selective four-year colleges, while richer kids are likely to attend more expensive four-year institutions. At public colleges (the type we’d likely make free), students from the poorest fourth of the population currently pay no net tuition at either two-year or four-year institutions, while also receiving an average of $3,080 and $2,320 respectively to offset some of their annual living expenses. Richer students currently receive much fewer tuition and living grant benefits.

“Given these class-based differences in attendance levels, institutional selection, and current student benefit levels, making college free for everyone would almost certainly mean giving far more money to students from richer families than from poorer ones. Of course, providing more generous student benefits might alter these class-based skews a bit by encouraging more poor and middle-class people to go to college or to attend more expensive institutions. But even reasonably accounting for those kinds of responses, the primary result of such increased student benefit generosity would be to fill the pockets of richer students and their families.”

Two things here: First, I hope Bruenig or someone else on his side of the spectrum will recognize that the same holds true for everything government subsidizes universally, including health care (Medicare) and living expenses (Social Security) for retirees. Applying these programs to all has the immutable effect of taking some money that could have been put to more productive uses and shoveling it toward those who don’t need it.

And second, those considered “poor” already have free college. Re-read this line from the above: “(S)tudents from the poorest fourth of the population currently pay no net tuition at either two-year or four-year institutions, while also receiving an average of $3,080 and $2,320 respectively to offset some of their annual living expenses.” If that isn’t “free college,” I don’t know what is. So Sanders and Clinton are not talking about helping the poor; they’re talking about creating a new middle-class entitlement that will be too big and too fiscally undisciplined to avoid becoming another gigantic strain on federal finances.

Bruenig’s piece appears alongside two others in the current issue* of Dissent magazine. You can read the other two here and here, but they are utterly unpersuasive next to his (even if I don’t agree with absolutely everything he says elsewhere in his piece).

These arguments are similar to one I made last year about higher education in Georgia, and they should be front and center in the debate just getting started about beefing up the HOPE scholarship via expanded gambling in our state. We will never find enough money to create a full, middle-class, college-tuition entitlement, any more than the federal government could sustain one nationally. Before doing anything else to subsidize college prices, we should examine costs very closely and think very hard about who is redistributing money to whom with these subsidies.

*The issue is titled “Arguments on the Left,” which is telling. I don’t read as many articles from center-left publications as from center-right ones, but I read enough to know it is a relatively unusual thing to see these kinds of explicit arguments in the former. On the other hand, there would be substantially less written in center-right publications if not for such internal arguments. That’s a key reason there typically is much more pushing and tugging in the political arena within the Republican Party than there is among Democrats.

(Note: I will be traveling much of today and won’t be able to approve comments as frequently as usual, but I will be checking whenever I can. Thanks in advance for your patience.)

Reader Comments 0

26 comments
LilBarryBailout
LilBarryBailout

Making public college "free" to all would likely result in more middle- and upper-class kids, who are better qualified academically, to attend public colleges, displacing the poor.  Why do leftists want to deny poor kids a decent college education?

MarkVV
MarkVV

Reading Bruenig’s and Kyle’s arguments, someone from another country who does not know the US would have the impression that there are really only two kinds of students attending US public colleges – the rich, who can afford them, and the poor, who attend them for free.

The most ignorant part of the conservatives’ attacks on something like free college education is the implication that all that it means is “giving.” They never seem to understand that a more educated population means a better country in which all people benefit, including them.

LogicalDude
LogicalDude

" those considered “poor” already have free college"


What about all those that WOULD GO, but the cost is prohibitive anyway?  We are sacrificing a great many people to struggle with life instead of helping just a little bit more. 

The argument you have is valid for "don't pay those rich kids to go to college!" but with that, you acknowledge that many who could benefit themselves and society are now otherwise out of luck. 


"Good luck with that kid, here's a nickel. Go to college." 


I still have not seen a very good analysis of why tuition costs have significantly outpaced inflation over the past 20-30 years; other than things like "states are supporting education less", but that was only for Georgia. 

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@LogicalDude "What about all those that WOULD GO, but the cost is prohibitive anyway?"

Free tuition and $2,000-$3,000 living expenses isn't enough? That's still prohibitive?

As for "only for Georgia" -- no, that was a nationwide thing during the past decade and tied directly to the economy.

MarkVV
MarkVV

@Kyle_Wingfield @LogicalDude  What about those who do not qualify for that support? Are you, from your high perch, making the judgment that they have enough money to send kids to college?

LogicalDude
LogicalDude

@Kyle_Wingfield @LogicalDude How about making Junior College / Vocational school free? Most "rich kids" go to 4 year colleges.  Having more vocational training or Junior college at no cost would give youth the next step up into better jobs an careers. 


I'm looking for some middle ground that helps the most people continue education if they want it, and also helps companies get better trained employees. 

Since the economy has improved so much, then why hasn't tuition gone down as states get more tax money coming in?  Oh wait. . . they keep cutting taxes so they don't have money to do the things they should do. 

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

@LogicalDude "How about making Junior College / Vocational school free?"

That's the point: Those are practically free already for most people of modest means and/or (in Georgia) anyone with a 3.0 average (for the two-year colleges; there is no high-school GPA requirement for technical colleges, just a 2.0 requirement once they're taking technical college courses).

Perhaps you'll ask, well, what about states besides Georgia? And I'd respond: We figured it out with a modest state budget; they can, too.

As for this: "Since the economy has improved so much, then why hasn't tuition gone down as states get more tax money coming in?"

Maybe instead of blaming the tax writers, you should blame the colleges?

Jefferson1776
Jefferson1776

Why not use the 6 million a day we give to the middle east ?

straker
straker

College is not for everyone nor was it ever such.


And yet, somehow, in America we seem to think the ideal is for everyone to go to college and get a degree.


What IS true is that, in this day and age, some kind of post high school training is essential for getting a good job.


I'd say that we should first make getting into college much harder.


Then, make college AND good trade schools free to everyone.


America would only gain from this.

FIGMO2
FIGMO2

Is it possible to shove the golden egg back into the goose without cracking it?

I think not.

schnirt 

MarkVV
MarkVV

The simple fact is that other developed countries can afford free college education, while conservatives claim that the richest country cannot.

What I find unconscionable and immoral is when in any discussion on immigration people on both sides of the political spectrum call for encouraging immigration of well educated people from abroad, which mostly are people who had their higher education paid by their countrymen, and then the conservatives among the people wanting such people here oppose free college education in this country. They are those who want something for nothing!

Jimmyliscious
Jimmyliscious

It's all just a sham to create more competition in the skilled labor work force to drive wages down for Big Business and its lackey The Chamber of Commerce. Bending over the old taxpayer more to fund this to increase corporate profit.

Hedley_Lammar
Hedley_Lammar

If you think it costs now....Just wait until its free !!!!


Thought I would get that one out of the way.

Claver
Claver

Glad to hear that the bottom 25% is getting some help, but what about the middle class?  Average household income is what?  $55,000.  The in-state student cost of going to UGA per year (tuition, fees, room board, and books) is $25,000 without HOPE. With HOPE, it still $17,000.  Multiply that by 4 years.  I agree that we need to look at why the cost is so high.  But, you and I agreeing that someone should look at cost isn't doing Georgia middle class families any good right now.

LDH2O
LDH2O

It seems to me that the argument against free college could equally be made against any free public education at any level. The wealthy disproportionately benefit from free K-12 because they could have paid for it in any case. Since the conclusion that K-12 should not be free, it seems that the basic argument, including for college, is flawed. Further, while SOME poor get scholarships, it is not the case all around.

Kyle_Wingfield
Kyle_Wingfield moderator

No, because unlike college, k-12 is designed for all, and all enroll in it.

MarkVV
MarkVV

The two important bits of Bruenig’s arguments are the following (Capitals – my emphasis):

At public colleges (the type we’d likely make free), students from THE POOREST FOURTH OF THE POPULATION currently pay no net tuition …”

“Of course, providing more generous student benefits might alter these class-based SKEWS A BIT by encouraging more poor and middle-class people …

Thus, in the former one, Bruenig deals only with “the poorest fourth of the population,” as if the middle class family students were well taken care of. I wonder who are all those thousands and thousands of students we hear about, who carry those enormous student debts. The rich kids?  And in the latter quote, that “skews a bit,” is that supposed to be a result of scientific evaluation of the effect, or just a figment of Mr. Bruenig’s imagination?

McGarnagle
McGarnagle

"And second, those considered “poor” already have free college"


Statements like these upset me to no end. It gives the impression that the "poor" folks have access to college but for whatever reason choose not to go else why would their attendance be so low. College is not free at almost any level. 2-year or 4 year. You pay financially or through hard work which can get you grants or scholarships. 


The intent of Sanders and Clinton is to lower college costs which we all agree is at high levels. If Republicans feel that free tuition at trade schools or community colleges make more sense to help the poor. Then lets hear that message rather then "examine costs very closely and think very hard". To me thats code for do nothing. 

Recon2/3
Recon2/3

Not at all surprising that Sanders and Clinton are saying the same thing about free college they're merely doing what Democrats typically do and that's go after the Dem's low information voter base. Free stuff sells to the base that comprises the majority of Dem voters.

LDH2O
LDH2O

@Recon2/3 Yes, its all that free stuff from the government. Why should the government offer education or fire protection for free? It used to be that fire companies were private and not government run. Let's go back to letting the free economy offer everything because it is the best allocator of scarce resources. - Oh wait, no, the government offers such services for free to maximize the value to our whole society of our human capital.

Dusty2
Dusty2

As Kyle noted, college is already free for low income students.  This announcement is just another political  move for votes.  FREE??  That is the magic word for Democrats no matter whether anybody needs it or not. They are determined to " manufacture" more "Free" things. Let us flee from "free" and switch to "responsible".  Taxpayers would appreciate that effort.  

RafeHollister
RafeHollister

That’s a key reason there typically is much more pushing and tugging in the political arena within the Republican Party than there is among Democrats.


Yep, the reason is logic and facts thrown before the proggies is akin to casting pearls before the swine.  


They know what they want and are determined to get what they want and there is no logic or information that is apt to alter their attempt.  Socialism doesn't work, irresponsible spending weakens countries,  gun control is unconstitutional and unlikely to get passed, yet they press on, facts be damned.