Read Kevin Carey on the case against free college.
One of the more prominent debates of the Democratic primary has been whether we should move to a system of “debt-free” public higher education, like that proposed by Hillary Clinton, or instead toward one resembling Bernie Sanders’s entirely free public system. Under Clinton’s plan, no student would have to take on student debt to cover tuition, books, or other fees if they are willing to work 10 hours per week. According to this plan, “families will do their part by making an affordable and realistic family contribution.” In contrast, Sanders’s plan, as Hillary Clinton described it, would mean taxpayers would effectively “be paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college.”
If we transitioned to a system of “debt-free” college, we would certainly be better off. Not only would this increase access to college, it would also take the burden of debt off the backs of many young people starting off their lives. Though many argue student loans aren’t so significant as they are a small monthly payment compared to the upside of a college education, studies find that student loans delay young people’s decision to start a family and get a home, deter them from embarking on public service work, slow entrepreneurship in a period where we need more new businesses, and generally discourage young people from taking the risks society needs them to. And those consequences are even worse for those who don’t graduate. Debt-free college would also help halt the momentum toward privatization and disinvestment of higher education, by providing a clear funding plan.
Yet, despite this, there remain many reasons why college should, in fact, be free for all.
First off, pitting the interests of higher-income families against those of lower-income ones is a tenuous long-term political arrangement. Public higher education systems are already partially doing this, by having students from upper-income families pay higher tuition to cross-subsidize that of poorer students, thus allowing them to pay less. Unfortunately, as we’ve seen, liberals often fail in their efforts to uphold such systems of redistributive means-tested benefits. For example, some states have already begun fighting these transfers. Public school systems in states ranging from North Carolina to Iowa, and from Arizona to Virginia, are capping this kind of cross-subsidy.
The reason for this is also telling. For example, one board member at The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC) described this situation by saying that the burden of paying for poorer students to attend college “has become unfairly apportioned to working North Carolinians.” The fact that this reactionary language—referring to some as “good working people,” while dismissing others as “bad deadbeats”—so easily flourishes in a debate about young people simply trying to educate themselves is the direct result of an existing economic conflict where one need not exist.
The argument against free higher education gets its strongest punches when it references those in the top 1 percent of incomes, the Donald Trumps of the world. But the idea of free tuition would likely have its most salient and visceral impact—in terms of affordability—for families and students around the median income, for those people who will start to be excluded from genuinely free college. Households around the median income haven’t seen real wage growth in 16 years, and those slightly above the median income have also struggled. Perhaps this kind of system could work in a world of more broadly-shared prosperity, but right now is the wrong political moment for this to work as well as it otherwise could.
It is also important to examine more closely the “debt-free” plan’s work requirement. Many students are working long hours while also taking on student debt, so the transition to a debt-free system would be a meaningful gain. Yet it’s easy to imagine more onerous requirements eventually being placed on these students, particularly when their interests are seen as deviating from those of the other half of the student body.
Another important benefit of free college is that the “debt-free” option would do less to break some of the other dysfunctional aspects of higher education as they relate to upper-income students. If schools are able to benefit directly from taking in a greater number of high-income students, this may amplify, rather than weaken, the consumerist model that has come to dominate the higher education field.
By allowing schools to charge wealthier students higher fees, colleges would focus more on securing and meeting the needs of these wealthy students—creating a competitive arms race for income, rather than a broader system of inclusion. We shouldn’t be naive about the inherent bias toward the rich in higher education; but we shouldn’t either build a system that amplifies these tendencies.
Meanwhile, another advantage of making public college tuition completely free is that this could act as an indirect control on the costs of private schools. This concept follows the same logic as the public option in health care. A free, but excellent, option would force private colleges to look harder at what they offer and how much they charge for it. There is extensive debate over whether student loans and grants drive up the cost of tuition—but, to the extent that it does, using those same resources to drive down the cost of public colleges should, by extension, also drive down the cost of private schools. In addition, it could help drain the swamp of predatory providers, and ensure alternative providers would succeed because they are providing a better service, rather than scheming for scraps in a crumbling system. Having upper-income families pay more would reduce this to some extent, but, at the extreme, it could lead those families to leave the public system entirely.
In the end, this debate is just as much about values as it is about economics. The cost of covering students from upper-incomes families isn’t truly the issue here, as it is would not really be the burden it is often made out to be; it doesn’t cost more to educate young people from upper-income families than it does those from low-income ones. We don’t charge upper-income families more to ride the subway or visit a public park in order to ensure that these are public institutions available to all who have the ability and desire to participate in them. We instead balance the progressivity of the system on the tax side. Therefore, this debate is actually about whether we should ensure education is affordable for all, or whether we should genuinely make education a right of all citizens. If the only downside of college “for all” is that Donald Trump’s kids also get to attend free of charge, that doesn’t seem like such a loss.