Democrats’ ongoing argument about free college, explained

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A big debate in theory that may not mean much in practice.

Bernie Sanders made an early splash in 2015 with his call to make public colleges and universities tuition-free — a battle he’s rejoining this week with a new version of legislation to eliminate tuition and cancel student debt — and Democrats have been arguing about it ever since.

In the 2020 field, Elizabeth Warren has joined Sanders on the free college bandwagon. Joe Biden was an early endorser of this idea in 2015, though he hasn’t talked about it much in the current cycle. Pete Buttigieg says he’s opposed, favoring instead a dramatic expansion of Pell Grants to make college much more affordable for students from low-income families. Amy Klobuchar has been more dismissive, saying she’s not “a magic genie” who can just give expensive stuff to everyone (although the federal government’s ability to create and spend money is not magic but just how the financial system works).

It’s a debate that cleaves two philosophically distinct approaches to politics: one a mentality of hoarding scarce resources for the most efficient uses, and the other a broad, aspirational vision of public luxury in which there’s little need to quibble about exactly who gets what.

But it also speaks to the generational divide in Democratic politics. To older voters, accustomed to the cheap college tuition that prevailed decades ago, “free college” sounds quixotic and frivolous; to younger people burdened by today’s much higher tuition structure and loan-based financing system, it’s a clear commitment to fix a broken system.

Yet the federal government is a secondary actor in higher education. State governments allowed higher education cost structures to rise even while pulling back on funding, pushing more costs onto students. It’s ultimately state governments that will need to decide whether they’re willing to spend more on higher education, cut costs, or both. The candidates arguing about this are running for president, not governor, and when you look under the hoods of their plans, there may be less to the contrast than the broad philosophical discussion would suggest.

Free college helps the rich more than the poor

The crucial criticism of free college plans is that they are “regressive,” which means they deliver more public funds to higher-income families than to low-income families.

This happens for two main reasons.

One is that kids from affluent families are considerably more likely to attend college than kids from less prosperous backgrounds, so any kind of higher education spending tends to disproportionately benefit the affluent. The other is that lower-income kids pay less in tuition than affluent ones. They are more likely to attend relative cheap community colleges than relatively expensive public university flagship campuses. And lower-income kids benefit from Pell Grants and other forms of means-tested tuition assistance like state grant programs and scholarships.

Economists Sandy Baum and Alexandra Tilsley calculate that more than a third of the benefits of free college would go to households earning over $120,000 and relatively little money would flow to the genuinely neediest families or to independent students who are paying for college on their own.


There are different ways of doing the calculation, but they’ll all return the same result. “Parents of college students” is a richer group of people than parents overall. Affluent families are more likely to attend four-year programs rather than two-year programs, and less affluent families are more likely to be already getting help with their tuition.

That’s why Third Way, the flagship policy shop for centrist Democrats, warns that free college “could increase inequality,” while Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic terms it “a regressive scandal.”

It’s worth being clear, however, that even though free college helps the rich more than the poor, it’s actually not true that any of the Democratic plans would be regressive in its overall impact. Sanders’s College for All Act is paid for by imposing a financial transactions tax on stock trading, while Warren’s free college plus debt relief plan is supposed to be paid for with some of the proceeds from her proposed wealth tax. Both of these financing mechanisms (especially Warren’s) are extremely progressive, so the aggregate impact of the proposals is, in turn, progressive.

Free college is regressive relative to a hypothetical alternative in which the same pool of money is handed out flatly to everyone regardless of whether they go to college. But Democrats’ free college plans are still progressive relative to the status quo. What’s true is that they’re less progressive than using the same revenue sources to just cut equal checks to everyone would be.

Proponents, however, say this misses the point.

Free college is part of a broader social democratic vision

The general principle of charging high tuition and then largely offsetting that tuition with grants for the poor could, of course, be applied much more broadly.

Local governments could charge $2,500 a year in tuition to attend high school, and most families would be able to pay it. You could then layer a grant program for the neediest families on top and argue that the change was a progressive strategy to soak the rich. But charging tuition to public high school would seriously undermine Americans’ shared understanding of the meaning of a public high school. Imposing a means test on free book borrowing at public libraries would, similarly, cut against the civic purpose of the library, even though many families who take advantage of library services are in the top third of the income distribution and don’t strictly need public assistance to get our hands on books.

Indeed, the fact that affluent families use public libraries is arguably an institutional strength. My neighborhood library attracts people from all walks of life. And by bundling together book lending services that seem to be mostly used by educated yuppies, computer terminals and job training classes that seem to be mostly used by lower-income working-class people, and toddler activities that a very diverse set of families enjoy, the library system garners strong public support.

By the same token, Jordan Weissmann argues that the point of free college is “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.”

But the universality of free college initiatives isn’t just about cynical politics — it’s a statement of values. To guarantee free college to qualified students is a way of saying that higher education is important and valued, which is one reason the idea seems very popular among young college graduates who would not actually benefit in a concrete way. That said, most people are not young college graduates, and polling from Quinnipiac University and elsewhere tends to indicate that free college plans are moderately unpopular with the electorate at large — even though the exact same poll shows that imposing a wealth tax is popular.

Beyond public opinion, there are a lot of annoying specifics that tend to get glossed over in the high-level argument about free college.

These plans wouldn’t create universal free college

The basic reality is that the federal government does not run colleges or universities and does not set tuition or spending levels at colleges or universities.

Consequently, this whole space is stalked by the fear that if the federal government makes an open-ended commitment to cover students’ tuition, states will simply allow college spending to soar. To address that fear, Sanders’s free college plan does not actually guarantee that students would be able to attend college for free. What it does instead is offering a two-to-one federal matching grant to any state that wants to increase its subsidies to public colleges by enough to eliminate tuition. This tuition elimination must be achieved entirely by higher subsidies — stricter spending discipline is prohibited — and in fact, Sanders’s plan would require states taking the money to “reduce their reliance on low-paid adjunct faculty.”

This is a perfectly reasonable legislative proposal, but in a practical sense, most states aren’t going to take the money. Most state-level Republicans have been reluctant to accept the much more generous nine-to-one matching grants provided by the Affordable Care Act to expand Medicaid.

Somewhat contrary to the stereotype of Warren as the more detail-oriented progressive senator, meanwhile, her free college proposal doesn’t offer any mechanism at all through which to accomplish this goal. The text of her plan simply states that “the federal government will partner with states to split the costs of tuition and fees and ensure that states maintain their current levels of funding on need-based financial aid and academic instruction.”

Perhaps at some future point Warren will spell out a plan that would actually accomplish this, but as written, it’s more of a placeholder than a plan. And Sanders’s plan, while very real, is in a practical sense closer to “free college in a few blue states” than “universal free college,” which in turn raises questions about the plan’s viability in Congress.

By tweaking these proposals somewhat, you could almost certainly increase the likelihood of state uptake. Realistically, though, as long as higher education remains a joint state-federal responsibility, it will be hard to achieve true universality. And once one relaxes the demand for total universality, the distinction between “free college” and other progressive higher education ideas starts to wane.

There are a bunch of ideas that aren’t quite free college

One popular alternative to free college, championed by the Obama administration in its final years, is the idea that the federal government should act to make two years of community college free for everyone. This is both cheaper than a commitment to making four-year public universities free and more narrowly targeted at lower-income students. And because it’s cheaper, it’s feasible for the federal government to offer to shoulder a larger share of the cost, which probably makes it likely that more states would be tempted to get with the program.

A nuance here is that there is significant state-to-state variation in how the lower tier of public higher education is organized.

According to Kevin Carey, the director of New America’s education program, “in Illinois, 62 percent of students enrolled in public institutions attend community college” versus only 32 percent in nearby Michigan and Wisconsin. The difference is the latter states have invested in creating a more extensive network of non-selective four-year institutions to meet the needs of many of the kind of people Illinois serves via community colleges.

Carey proposes that instead of matching funds or a community college limitation, the federal government should just pick a number — somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 per student — and say any state that wants to make a public college campus free can get that much cash to help them do it. The network would be linked through a set of quality standards including a promise to accept one another’s credits and set the stage for coursework to be done at least partially online.

Meanwhile, Rep. Mark Pocan (D-WI) and Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI) have legislation to make college debt-free. That includes a clear commitment to ensuring that students don’t need to take out loans to cover living expenses or books, something tuition-oriented plans aren’t always clear on, but also focusing more on high-need students rather than wealthier ones who don’t need to borrow. Their program would give participating states a dollar-for-dollar match from the federal government for however much funding they appropriate for state schools. In exchange, those schools would have to commit to helping students pay for the full cost of college without taking on debt, through need-based grants to help students who can’t afford it cover costs.

This matching rate, however, is even lower than in the Sanders plan, and in practice, many states would just say thanks but no thanks.

There may be less than meets the eye to this debate

On a philosophical level, the free college debate is fascinating.

You have on the one hand a vision of higher education as part of a bundle of free (or at least very cheap) public services offered on equal terms to all — an extension of the principle of free high school and a natural complement to the aspiration to create a single-payer health care system. Then you have on the other hand a vision of higher education as primarily a private benefit to students that should be financed through loans, with targeted assistance to particularly needy cases.

Precisely because this cleaves so neatly into two contrasting visions of higher education and, more broadly, the nature of the good society, it’s easy to become entranced by the pros and cons of the social democratic romance.

The more you dig into the particulars, however, the less obvious it is what this contrast amounts to in presidential politics.

In theory, a candidate could propose using an extremely sharp stick to essentially force states to make college free by eliminating the federal student loan program and replacing it with the carrot of matching funds. But in practice, nobody in the field is actually proposing that. Instead, presidential aspirants have different varieties of carrot-oriented plans that are ultimately going to leave authority in the hands of governors and state legislatures.

Meanwhile, proposals to boost the generosity of federal higher education spending in a targeted way — the main Democratic alternative to free college — would also make it easier for state governments that want to do free college to do it.

So regardless of what happens in presidential politics, the success or failure of the free college movement is ultimately bound to be determined in the states — where most legislative houses remain firmly under GOP control.