Moderate Democrats Should Stop Pretending That Free College Is a Giveaway to Rich Kids

Democratic presidential hopefuls Representative for Hawaii Tulsi Gabbard (L), Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar (C) and Mayor of South Bend, Indiana, Pete Buttigieg (R) participate in the fifth Democratic primary debate of the 2020 presidential campaign season co-hosted by MSNBC and The Washington Post at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, Georgia on November 20, 2019. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg in Atlanta on Wednesday. Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

When moderate Democrats criticize the idea of tuition-free college, they often fall back on a line about how it would be a waste of money to let wealthy kids go to school for free. The past couple days have given us two good examples of the trope. First, there was Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who decided to tweet out his own college-affordability plan thusly:

Later on during Wednesday night’s Democratic debate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar—whose campaign motto at this point might as well be “no, we can’t”—listed off “sending rich kids to college for free” as one of the obviously extravagant and kooky left-wing ideas she wouldn’t back. “I’m not going to go for things that sound good on a bumper sticker and throw in a free car,” she said.

This brand of criticism isn’t new; back in 2016, Hillary Clinton used to say that she didn’t want to pay for Donald Trump’s kids to get an education. It is also deeply disingenuous. Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have said they would like to abolish tuition at public colleges. That’s the policy we’re talking about. To state the obvious, there are not that many children of billionaires running around state schools. (Trump’s kids went to the University of Pennsylvania, you’ll recall.) Even if you define “rich kids” a bit more broadly, nixing their tuition probably wouldn’t be that costly. The Roosevelt Instiute’s Mike Konczal did a bit of quick-and-dirty math Wednesday and found that if you made public higher education free, just 1.4 percent of the benefits would go to children whose parents are in the top 1 percent.* If you’re worried that’s a gross misuse of precious government resources, there’s a simple fix: Tax the rich a bit more to cover the expense.

Though they prefer not to say it outright, what moderate politicians like Klobuchar and Buttigieg actually oppose is making college free for the upper middle class. Buttigieg’s plan, for instance, would eliminate college tuition for those earning less than $100,000. It would provide “substantial tuition subsidies” to those making less than $150,000. Then it cuts off.

There is, of course, a perfectly logical rationale to this sort of means testing. If you really believe you’re working with limited financial resources, then it makes sense to target help to those need it most, and families in the top economic quintile probably need less help than others. But claiming that you’re simply against giving away money to “rich kids” is a dishonest way of getting around the actual philosophical debate here, which is about whether we’re better off with a slightly smaller federal government and slightly lower taxes, or if we should pay slightly higher taxes so that the government can offer simple, universal programs that everybody benefits from. In other words, should we stick with the penny-pinching paradigm the government operates in now, or move in the direction of social democracy?

Personally, I think there’s a strong argument for the latter, at least in some cases. With health care, the cost of a truly universal program like single-payer is so immense, and the tax hikes required to pull it off are so impractical, that means-testing the benefits becomes a necessity. But free public college? We’re talking about an idea that Warren thinks will cost a bit over $60 billion a year. You could cover the entire tab with something like a financial transactions tax. Even if Warren is off by half, it’d still be one of the less expensive blue-sky ideas the left has pushed in the last few years. It would also relieve one of the major sources of anxiety for the sorts of suburban, upper-middle-class voters Democrats are coming to rely on in elections. In doing so, it might convince more of those families buy into the broader idea of a robust welfare state, and give them a reason to keep voting for Democrats once Trump is gone, rather than Republicans who promise to cut their taxes.

In any event, you can argue about whether it’s really worth spending money on families with low- to-mid-six-figure incomes. But we should be honest who we’re really arguing about. It’s not “rich kids.”

Correction, Nov. 21, 2019: An earlier version of this post misspelled Mike Konczal’s last name.