Nobody would ever accuse Bernie Sanders of trying to coddle the rich. But some certainly think his plan to abolish tuition at public colleges would end up wasting a whole lot of money on them. Hillary Clinton, for her part, likes to say she’s “not in favor of making college free for Donald Trump’s kids.”1 This week, meanwhile, a new report from Brookings confirms that getting rid of tuition entirely at state schools would disproportionately benefit upper-income students.
Does that really mean abolishing tuition at State U. is a terrible idea? Not necessarily. The fact that free college would benefit everyone from Trump to the people who clean his towers might actually be an argument in its favor.
While the Sanders campaign has questioned its findings, there really shouldn’t be anything surprising or controversial about the new Brookings report, which was written by Urban Institute Senior Fellow Matthew Chingos. In general, wealthier students go to somewhat more expensive schools—say, University of Michigan instead of Wayne State or Lansing Community College—and are less likely to get generous financial aid. By default, any policy that eliminated tuition entirely would probably save more money for your typical upper-middle-class freshman than a striving poor kid who might have gotten a free ride anyway. Chingos ultimately finds that dependent students from the wealthiest quarter of American families would reap 18 percent of the total savings from nixing tuition, even though they make up just 11 percent of public college undergrads. Independent students—who aren’t officially supported by their parents, and who by all indications seem to skew poorer than traditional undergrads—would get just a third of the benefits, even though they make up about half of public collegegoers.
What’s so wrong with giving rich kids a break if school is free for everybody? Some progressives will argue that every dollar spent subsidizing tuition for all the frat boys parking BMWs at the University of Alabama could instead be spent on grants to cover living expenses for lower-income students. That’s a big trade-off, since things like rent, food, and books are often the most important drivers of debt for working-class undergrads, who, once again, frequently get generous discounts on tuition. Chingos notes that, even without having to pay for course credits, students from the bottom quarter of families would collectively still face billions in nontuition expenses.
And, of course, there might also be more important places to spend the government’s resources outside of higher education. Would you rather the federal government help kids from D.C.’s tony suburbs go the University of Virginia, free of charge? Or would you rather that cash go to, say, Section 8 housing assistance? Sure, Sanders wants to fund his free college plan with a tax on Wall Street trading, which would largely hit upper-income households. But does that mean giving money back to them is a wise use of those funds?
Again, the Sanders campaign has tried to write all this off. According to the Wall Street Journal, it called the Brookings analysis “deeply flawed, saying that under its own analysis, 70% of the benefits would go to those making less than $100,000 a year.” This is a fairly weak retort, since Chingos’ report says almost exactly the same thing. Sanders’ policy director, Warren Gunnels, also told the Journal that under the candidate’s plan, students would be able to use federal aid, such as Pell grants, in order to cover their living expenses, since tuition would no longer be a concern. But last I checked, Sanders’ team had completely botched the budget math needed to make that idea work. Of course, arithmetic can be fixed, but it would add to the program’s cost.
So quibbling over statistics isn’t very convincing here. Instead, it might be better for Sanders to simply own the fact that his proposal would help the rich, and frame it as a concession to political necessity. It’s a lot easier to get affluent Americans to support big new public spending efforts if they stand to benefit from it, as well. Likewise, upper-middle-class voters are ferocious about protecting their favorite government programs from cuts. The typical examples of this you hear are Social Security and Medicare. But recall last year when President Obama suggested scaling back 529 college savings plans: The uproar was so bad that White House almost immediately had to walk back the idea. The lesson: parents who earn low to mid-six figures aren’t a bad voting bloc to have on your team.
If you’re a progressive, it might be nice to have that kind of public buy-in on free college, too. Therefore, you could argue that the best way to win support for refunding our public universities, and then keep them funded, is to spread the benefits to students who don’t strictly need the help. That may or may not be the right policy move if it means there won’t be enough money left over to help poorer students cover their rent while studying. But, on a purely theoretical level, giving rich kids a free education isn’t necessarily a horrible or wasteful idea.
1 Which is a little off-key, since they’ve all gone to the University of Pennsylvania (for Wharton, in particular) and Georgetown. But, you know, it’s rhetorically effective enough.