Bernie Sanders’ quest for the Democratic nomination may be effectively dead, but one of his trademark policy proposals—tuition-free college for all—still has a lot of life left in it. The idea has captured the imagination of progressives across the country, with some activists now starting to call for free law school as well, apparently under the impression that eliminating tuition for higher education is a social justice cause. The only problem is that free college, as envisioned by Sanders, actually amounts to a highly regressive giveaway to wealthy American families, who are most likely to attend college, and especially likely to attend more selective (and expensive) institutions. As Matthew Chingos writes for Brookings:
[T]he Sanders free college proposal gives significant benefits to relatively affluent students. My results indicate that families from the top half of the income distribution with dependent students attending public in-state two- and four-year colleges would receive $16.8 billion in dollar value from eliminating tuition, as compared to $13.5 billion for students from the lower half of the income distribution, a difference of 24 percent.
Hillary Clinton’s plan to expand targeted college subsidies might be less regressive, but would also carry particular hazards for low-income students. As we’ve said before, student loan excesses tend to harm the most vulnerable students, who are statistically less likely to earn a degree and who have poor earning prospects if they do drop out. Such students are the most likely to be saddled with debt that they can’t pay back—and, consequently, see their credit ratings destroyed—years after they leave college and enter the workforce. Finally, the whole premise that the government should push more people into expensive BA programs is probably flawed to begin with: As Preston Cooper has pointed out, “only one-third of college enrollees end up in jobs requiring college degrees.”
It’s tempting to say, as Chingos does, that “free college is unlikely to see the light of day in today’s divided political environment.” But just a few years ago, many of us might have said that about an idea as extreme as the $15 minimum wage as well. The fact is that far-left forces in America seem to be gaining strength, and it would not be surprising to see them win some policy victories on the free college front in the next several years, especially at the state level. And it’s easy to see how the movement gains political momentum: Like the $15 minimum wage, the free college advocates could win poor and working class support by falsely presenting their initiative as a social justice project. Meanwhile, upper-middle class professionals—seeing that the policy actually favors the wealthy, and that any adverse consequences would be borne by the poor and disadvantaged—could sign on as well.