mead berger shevtsova garfinkle michta grygiel blankenhorn bayles
free everything
The Upper-Middle Class Welfare Act

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.

Features Icon
show comments
  • Jim__L

    We have a government of the philosopher king, by the philosopher kings, for the philosopher kings.

    “Free college” is the biggest pander to this class anyone could imagine. It’s no surprise that it’s so popular.

  • Dale Fayda

    Socialism, in all its guises and variants, is fundamentally oppressive and immoral. Arguing about the minutiae of whom this “free everything” movement would hurt the most is a deliberate refusal to see the forest for the trees. “Free” higher education has been tried in many places in the last (100) years, generally by countries whose economies have either completely imploded or are in the process of implosion. The 20th century happened – take notice.

  • qet

    The solution is obvious. Just award a diploma outright to each low and moderate income person who requests it from the college of his/her choice, for payment of an honorarium-type fee to the college. Make it a Bachelor of Arts, and hand it out when the kid is 22. You think I’m joking? All of the kids complaining the loudest for free college are spending most of their time being professional “activists” anyway and asking to be relieved of their exams and coursework because of the burdens their work for social justice entails. What, exactly, are they doing there? They are marking time until they can get a diploma, while doing next to nothing intellectually the 4 years they are there. The content of most non-STEM programs at most colleges today is laughably unrigorous owing to decades of agitation for reduced workloads, viewpoint-friendly course, easier material and grade inflation. Kids are coming out of college just as ignorant as when they went in (10% of college grads think Judge Judy is on the Supreme Court and 60% think Jefferson wrote the Constitution), having spent their 4 years reading propaganda, not books, and being proselytized, not taught, and paying a fortune for the privilege.

    Think I’m exaggerating? Here are the course offerings in the History Dept. at Amherst College this Spring: WW2 in Global Perspective (“The course will also address moral controversies raised by the war, including the Anglo-American firebombing of Germany and the decision to drop the atomic bomb. Texts for the course will include film, memoirs, government documents, graphic and other novels, and secondary accounts of the war”); 19th Century America (“Topics will include changing ethnic, racial, gender, and class relations, the struggles between labor and capital, and the emergence of middle-class culture”); Colonial and Post-Colonial Africa; Spain and the Pacific World 1571-1898; Art, Politics and Propaganda in Modern Europe (“Students will develop skills in analyzing primary artifacts including visual art and film within the context of historical transformations and artistic movements”); The Century of Sex: Gender and Sexual Politics in Modern Europe; The Age of Chivalry 1000 – 1500; Women and War in European History 1558 – 1918; Race and Empire: The British Experience from 1760; Race and American Capitalism: From Slavery to Ferguson; The Immigrant City (“Amherst College History majors who wish to write a 25-page research paper and thereby satisfy their major research requirement may do so in the context of this course”); Introduction to Latin America: Conquest, Colonization and Rebellion; Introduction to South African History; Proseminar in History: Writing the Past; A Price for Everything: Making of a Market Society; WW2 and Japanese Americans; Wine, History and the Environment; On Nationalism; Between Tsars and Communists.

    With one or two exceptions, each of these offerings is a product of recent academic politics: tendentious and light on substance. 25 pages is a “major research paper” at one of the most esteemed and selective liberal arts colleges in the US?? Why should a low income kid have to incur $250K in debt and sit through 4 years of this nonsense when he won’t learn anything more than what he reads in The New Republic, Salon and HuffPo? Which is to say, he will learn only form and not material (that’s why the kids don’t know who wrote the Constitution, who is on the Supreme Court or who has the power to declare war (all they know is they’re agin’t)); conclusions pre-packaged and fed to him, detached from anything that might dilute the desired memes and messages. Any kid who dares question the professor’s bias will be treated like that poor kid at Marquette. So just grant them the diplomas and let him get on with it. Let the kids who really yearn to soak up this nonsense go ahead and pay for the privilege. I guarantee you that you would not be able to tell the difference between a kid who sat through the classes and a kid who just got his diploma outright. At a stroke you will reduce “inequality” in two ways: more kids will have college diplomas (don’t all the “studies” show that having a BA means a higher income?) and kids will not be burdened with debt that ruins their lives before they even begin.

    “Back where I come from, we have universities, seats of great learning, where men go to become great thinkers. And when they come out, they think deep thoughts and with no more brains than you have. But they have one thing you haven’t got: a diploma.”–The Great Oz

    • Fat_Man


    • FriendlyGoat

      What college graduates should know is that Judge Judy reportedly gets $47,000,000 per year to rudely yell at the kinds of “litigants” shown during one hour per day in her phony TV “court” and associate justices of the Supreme Court get $249,300 per year to decide whether you do or do not have individual rights.

  • Beauceron

    “The fact is that far-left forces in America seem to be gaining strength”

    Considering what’s been going on in this country, from the BLM and “white privilege” movements, where the “right kind” of racism is extolled as a virtue, to the “Bathroom Brouhaha” fights to make sure that the .3% of the population with “fluid” gender identities can pop into the women’s room down at the local mall, and from the mass immigration of third worlders into the US and the stripping of history from every public square, I’d say that is a pretty big understatement. It can and probably will get way worse, but the Left is not just gaining strength, they’re battering the country into submission.

    • Andrew Allison

      The silver lining to this cloud is that the faster the left gains strength, the sooner people will figure out that it’s a disaster.

      • Beauceron

        I think that sometimes. Other times I find myself thinking that I expected the Left to implode from the weight of its own visceral stupidity a while ago, and it has only gotten stronger– and then I worry there is no endpoint to it….it will swallow us all with a smug grin.

  • Anthony

    Slow day at TAI? This issue is a non issue – no doubt though, the politics are enticing.

    • Jim__L

      This issue is essential to understanding how out-of-touch elites are from most Americans, and how out-of-touch elites are from reality.

      Most Americans *do not need college*, and would benefit far more from four to eight years of actual life (working, raising families, etc) And yet, college is encouraged to the point of being idolized by — guess who! — the people that go there.

      The worst part is, this focuses public policy (of the philosopher-kings, by the philosopher-kings, for the philosopher-kings) on privileging the Credentialed Elites in all ways and entrenching a sense of entitlement among those elites, to the tragic cost of the vast majority of Americans.

      Trump is pretty much inevitable under those circumstances. I think that even if he does not gain power through the electoral process (which, to be honest, might be the best way for that to happen), he is symptomatic of a very deep problem in this country that elites show no interest in solving.

      America is in grave danger, and the elites are clueless.

      • Anthony

        That’s how you see it. I don’t.

        • Jim__L

          You’re out of touch and proud of it, it seems.

          • Anthony

            I know enough to avoid righteous indignation without vituperation.

  • Fat_Man

    Never happen. The Colleges clutch every revenue stream for dear life, and will lobby very strongly against it.

  • PennsylvaniaPry

    Sure, let’s do it. BUT, require a reading knowledge of Latin before allowing anyone into college.

  • Proud Skeptic

    The one thing these two have in common is the same thing we always hear from Progressives…OTHER people’s money must be taken to give the people we want to vote for us something we want them to have.

    Let’s stop giving this approach any credibility at all. It is stealing, plain and simple. In fact, it is the worst kind of stealing…the kind where not only are you taking someone else’s money against their will (for your preferred uses) but you are demonizing them at the same time.

    This is reprehensible behavior that has no place in a moral society.

    When A takes his own money and gives it to B then THAT is a moral act. We call that charity. When A convinces B to take money from C and give it to D THAT is progressivism and immoral.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2017 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service