Critics Complain That Free College Wouldn’t Be Progressive. They’re Missing the Point.

Bernie Sanders stands at a podium on a stage outdoors in front of supporters.
Bernie Sanders on March 2 at Brooklyn College, which he would like to make free. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Thanks to Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Democrats are going to spend part of the 2020 presidential campaign debating the merits of free college. And already, we’re starting to hear a familiar refrain from the idea’s critics: Eliminating tuition for everybody is a bad idea, because it wouldn’t be progressive.

Some skeptics, like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, point out that people who go to college tend to earn more than those who don’t, which makes it unfair to give them a free ride if they can afford to pay. “As a progressive, I have a hard time getting my head around the idea of a majority who earn less because they didn’t go to college subsidizing a minority who earn more because they did,” he told reporters last month. Others note that, because poorer students already tend to receive generous financial aid, the big winners would be upper-middle-class and wealthy students who currently pay full freight. Economists Sandy Baum and Sarah Turner, for instance, recently published a “back of the envelope” calculation showing that 37 percent of the money the government would need to spend to do away with tuition for full-time students would benefit undergrads whose families earn at least $120,000 a year.

“To make college affordable, should we create a scholarship program that gives the biggest financial rewards to students from rich families?” they wrote recently in the Washington Post. “Put that way, it’s hard to imagine such a program becoming politically popular, particularly on the left. Yet some of the ‘free college’ plans touted by many Democratic presidential contenders would do just that. They generally would provide the largest benefits to those with the greatest capacity to pay.”

These sorts of arguments aren’t wrong, exactly. But they tend to overlook something important: The main point of abolishing tuition at all public colleges isn’t to directly help the neediest undergrads (though you can certainly design a plan that also does that). It’s to rope middle- and upper-middle-class families into a broader social democratic project, one important piece of which is making sure that public colleges stay well-funded for everybody.

In other words, to its supporters on the left, the fact that free college might be a bit regressive isn’t really a bug.

Before I get into the politics of this issue, though, I want to spend a moment on Baum and Turner’s big stat, which is a bit misleading. First, their analysis doesn’t include part-time collegegoers, who tend to be poorer and make up nearly 40 percent of undergrads. They would benefit from the end of tuition, too. Second, it assumes that, with tuition gone, lower-income students would not get to keep their Pell grants to use on living expenses, even though that is exactly what Warren and Sanders have both called for in their free college plans. If you crunched the numbers on Warren and Sanders’ actual proposals, the results would probably look a lot different than what Baum and Turner came up with, and less regressive.

Baum and Turner’s broader point, however, is directionally correct. Today, affluent undergrads pay more for college than their poorer peers, so—measured in pure dollars and cents—they would benefit disproportionately from zeroing out tuition. Likewise, Buttigieg is mostly just stating the obvious when he points out that people who attend college earn more on average than those who don’t. Making college free isn’t strictly “progressive,” in that sense. But it’s also not supposed to be.

The entire policy agenda of the social-Democratic left is based on the idea that simple, universal government programs are generally better than means-tested benefits, because letting everybody enjoy nice things like higher education for free or cheap creates buy-in for a robust welfare state, whereas programs for the poor are easily targeted for cuts. If families that earn six figures can send their 18-year-olds to school without worrying about a tuition bill, they’ll be more likely to support properly funded public colleges that also benefit working-class kids and might even feel more warmly about their tax dollars helping to pay for someone else’s health care, since they’ll know that they too are benefiting from the government’s largesse. It’s not just about helping the poorest kids afford school. It’s about establishing the idea that certain things, like education at every level, are a right, and building support for strong public institutions to provide them.

To be clear, there are some public policy experts who absolutely believe that doing away with college tuition—especially at two-year schools—would be a boon to low-income students, many of whom have extreme difficulty navigating our maze of a financial aid system or get less help than they really need. There are also many writers, myself included, who think that our entire, voucherized system of higher education finance has been a disaster that’s contributed to rising tuition and encouraged the growth of rapacious for-profit colleges and that at this point it simply makes more sense for the government to directly fund colleges and require that they keep their prices low or at zero, rather than give students grants and loans that can get eaten up by price increases. But fundamentally, much of the logic behind free college really does boil down to the idea that it would be an effective political bribe for the upper middle class that could pay long-term dividends for everybody else.

(Some, like Baum and Turner, might be tempted to draw a comparison between tuition-free college and student debt forgiveness. The crucial distinction between them is that tuition-free college is an ongoing program meant to support our public education infrastructure, while forgiving college debt is basically a one-time cash transfer, much of which would benefit people who attended private schools, unless it’s means-tested.)

Now, you can certainly argue over the left’s theory about means-testing vs. universal benefits. It’s far from clear that the only way to build support for a program is to make sure everybody benefits from it. Medicaid is extremely popular with the broad public, even though it mostly serves the poor, near poor, disabled, and elderly. A solid majority of Americans have opposed food stamp cuts, even though the program exclusively helps low-income families (notably, that hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from trying to cut it). But critics of free college need to at least engage with the left’s argument, rather than write the whole notion off because it isn’t progressive enough. Progressivity isn’t the point.