Kyle Wingfield

Political commentary and opinion from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's conservative blogger

Make college 'free'? Not so fast

To hear the campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, you would think the entire left side of the political spectrum is in lockstep agreement about making college "free," or close to it. But that's not true. Although I'm still waiting for the first Democrat/liberal/progressivist to acknowledge that their side of the aisle is arguing about price without any regard to the underlying issue of cost, there is nonetheless a good argument against "free college" made by The New Republic's Matt Bruenig.

After sorting through some of the various definitions of and justifications for "free college," Bruenig makes a couple of important observations that you'd have expected more liberals to make:

"The main problem with free college is that most students come from disproportionately well-off backgrounds and already enjoy disproportionately well-off futures, which makes them relatively uncompelling targets for public transfers. At age nineteen, only around 20 percent of children from the poorest 2 percent of families in the country attend college. For the richest 2 percent of families, the same number is around 90 percent. In between these two extremes, college attendance rates climb practically straight up the income ladder: the richer your parents are, the greater the likelihood that you are in college at age nineteen. The relatively few poor kids who do attend college heavily cluster in two-year community colleges and cheaper, less selective four-year colleges, while richer kids are likely to attend more expensive four-year institutions. At public colleges (the type we'd likely make free), students from the poorest fourth of the population currently pay no net tuition at either two-year or four-year institutions, while also receiving an average of $3,080 and $2,320 respectively to offset some of their annual living expenses. Richer students currently receive much fewer tuition and living grant benefits.

"Given these class-based differences in attendance levels, institutional selection, and current student benefit levels, making college free for everyone would almost certainly mean giving far more money to students from richer families than from poorer ones. Of course, providing more generous student benefits might alter these class-based skews a bit by encouraging more poor and middle-class people to go to college or to attend more expensive institutions. But even reasonably accounting for those kinds of responses, the primary result of such increased student benefit generosity would be to fill the pockets of richer students and their families."

Two things here: First, I hope Bruenig or someone else on his side of the spectrum will recognize that the same holds true for everything government subsidizes universally, including health care (Medicare) and living expenses (Social Security) for retirees. Applying these programs to all has the immutable effect of taking some money that could have been put to more productive uses and shoveling it toward those who don't need it.

And second, those considered "poor" already have free college. Re-read this line from the above: "(S)tudents from the poorest fourth of the population currently pay no net tuition at either two-year or four-year institutions, while also receiving an average of $3,080 and $2,320 respectively to offset some of their annual living expenses." If that isn't "free college," I don't know what is. So Sanders and Clinton are not talking about helping the poor; they're talking about creating a new middle-class entitlement that will be too big and too fiscally undisciplined to avoid becoming another gigantic strain on federal finances.

Bruenig's piece appears alongside two others in the current issue* of Dissent magazine. You can read the other two here and here , but they are utterly unpersuasive next to his (even if I don't agree with absolutely everything he says elsewhere in his piece).

These arguments are similar to one I made last year about higher education in Georgia, and they should be front and center in the debate just getting started about beefing up the HOPE scholarship via expanded gambling in our state. We will never find enough money to create a full, middle-class, college-tuition entitlement, any more than the federal government could sustain one nationally. Before doing anything else to subsidize college prices, we should examine costs very closely and think very hard about who is redistributing money to whom with these subsidies.


*The issue is titled "Arguments on the Left," which is telling. I don't read as many articles from center-left publications as from center-right ones, but I read enough to know it is a relatively unusual thing to see these kinds of explicit arguments in the former. On the other hand, there would be substantially less written in center-right publications if not for such internal arguments. That's a key reason there typically is much more pushing and tugging in the political arena within the Republican Party than there is among Democrats.

(Note: I will be traveling much of today and won't be able to approve comments as frequently as usual, but I will be checking whenever I can. Thanks in advance for your patience.)

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About the Author

Kyle Wingfield joined the AJC in 2009. He is a native of Dalton and a graduate of the University of Georgia.