The Case For Free College

Is it “regressive”? No, and that’s the wrong question…

I did not do well in high school. By senior year I was not going to class much at all. I had more or less given up on the thought of college when I found out that it cost money. I didn’t have any money, my family didn’t have any money, so why bother with high school? I got a full time job at 16 and limped through to graduation and that was that.

But, luckily for me, that wasn’t that. Thanks to some very patient and persistent friends and teachers, I was eventually cajoled into going to community college. I had to be cajoled into going multiple times, to stand in line for hours each time, to get forms to fill out, to be told I filled them out incorrectly, etc., etc. I finally managed to enroll a year-and-a-half after I had graduated high school. And from then on I went to college for free.

Yes, I got free college. I went to community college on the California Board of Governors Fee Waiver, which covered my fees and also my books. (I kept working full time and was living with my grandparents.) Then I transferred to UCLA where, thanks to a lot of grants and a couple of very generous scholarships, I paid nothing and took on no debt. It didn’t feel that free, of course, given all the hassle of making it free. I ended up more or less doing my parents’ taxes for them, and filing those taxes, so I would have proof of how little money they made. (They made so little money they weren’t required to file taxes.) For the scholarships I had to prostrate myself and commodify my entire life up to that point, to twist it into socially-accepted narratives of very-poor-kid-with-potential, so that I would look very attractive to rich people who wanted to feel good about themselves. But it was all actually free.

And I have to tell you, free college was the best thing that ever happened to me. I loved college. One semester I had courses in modal logic and Chicano literature and secret wars all at the same time. It was utopian. I still think back on that time with extreme warm-and-fuzzies. And I would not have gone in the first place if it hadn’t been free. (I was financially much smarter at 19 than I was at 23 when I decided to take on a massive amount of debt to go to law school.) In fact, I had resolved not to go because it wasn’t free.

I am a fan of free college. I think it is absolutely tragic that so many people don’t go to college because they can’t afford it. I think it’s equally or more tragic that so many people take on massive amounts of debt, debt that burdens them for decades or their whole lives, just to have the experiences and get the advantages that well-off students can pay for upfront. This is not to say that the higher education system is not rife with problems—it is undeniably a bastion of iniquity. But, on balance, I think a lot of people who don’t go to college (like I planned) would have very good experiences (like I did). I also think that we won’t be able to dismantle the iniquities of our higher education system without first opening it up to anyone and everyone on equal terms.

All of this is also why I was surprised to learn recently from people on social media, and even from Mayor Pete, that making college free would be “regressive,” i.e., that it would hurt poor students and benefit rich ones. I really wanted to dismiss this point out of hand, but it’s not that easy. The debate around free college raises deeper questions about what the purpose of college is, what it should be, and how we should think about public goods.

What do people mean when they say free college is regressive? They might mean that it is regressive in a more or less technical sense: that a free college program will constitute a tax-based transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. This is essentially the Mayor Pete point. The idea is that poor people make up most of the tax base, but rich people make up most of the college students. So if everyone’s taxes pay for college, a lot of poor people will be paying for a lot of rich people to go to college.

A regressive free college policy is indeed a bad policy. But there’s no reason to think every free college plan would be regressive. If a free college plan was paid for by rich people only, it wouldn’t be regressive. If it benefitted poor people more than it benefitted rich people, it wouldn’t be regressive. You could easily imagine a free college plan passed hand in hand with a multi-millionaire tax. That plan would not be regressive because poor people wouldn’t be paying for rich people’s college—rich people would be paying for rich people’s college, and for poor people’s college too.

But it might still be a bad policy. There are government programs that, even if they’re not technically regressive, might still be what we’ll call “regressive-ish.” Say a policy is regressive-ish if it mostly or only benefits rich people. Imagine a multi-millionaire-funded free yacht maintenance program. The government levies a tax on the very wealthy to provide free yacht maintenance for all Americans. This is a “universal” policy, but it’s not very universal. Most people do not own yachts. It’s not technically regressive, but it’s still a big government outlay of money and energy that only benefits the wealthy. It’s regressive-ish.

Is free college regressive-ish? It might be. There’s certainly evidence that, right now, poorer kids are much less likely to go to college than wealthy kids. Should we be spending time and money and political capital on a program that will disproportionately benefit the wealthy?

This is the core question. And it rubs up against particular ways we have been trained to think about higher education. For college in particular, people across the political spectrum have adopted the “human capital” view. That is, they assume that the purpose of higher education is to raise people’s earning capacity in the labor market. College is referred to as an investment. You pay on the front end for returns over time. And it has historically been true that college graduates earn far more over time than non-graduates (unless you graduated from a scammy for-profit college, in which case you probably earn less over time than if you had never gone). So why should we be making the upfront investment for people who can make it themselves? Why subsidize the future earnings of the wealthy?

We can see that this intensely human capital oriented view is unique to college when we look at public high school. You could, of course, make all the same arguments about public high school. High school graduates earn far more over their lifetimes than those who don’t graduate. Why, then, are we providing free high school to affluent children? Why shouldn’t we require them to make their upfront investment, on which they will get returns, and only subsidize those who can’t afford high school tuition? (Why stop at education? Maybe we should charge tolls for every road and give toll-waivers to poorer motorists. Entry fees for every public park with fee waivers available. Why should we all be subsidizing rich people’s use of libraries? The reasoning doesn’t neatly stop at the edges of “human capital” investment.)

The reason we don’t think of public high school in these terms is largely thanks to the high school movement of the early 1900s. The high school movement was a push by advocates at the local and state level to provide free and open secondary school to teenagers. As a result, teenager enrollment in high school increased from 14 percent in 1910 to 31 percent by 1920, and to more than 50 percent by 1940. The high school movement dragged secondary education out of private and religious schools, often separated by gender. The result was open and gender-integrated schooling that, at least according to economists Claudia Goldin and Lawrence Katz, was responsible for much of the nation’s economic success in the 20th century.

Of course, public high school was not actually free, open, and universal. Black students throughout the nation and especially in the south were excluded. And, as Marshall Steinbaum has explained, the racism motivating school segregation, combined with resistance to the measures implemented after Brown v. Board of Education to remedy that segregation, were the main reason college didn’t become free and open in the 1960s with the Higher Education Act. (You can thank racism for your student loans.)

But note what happened: In 1910 high school was a privilege afforded to few and concentrated among the wealthy. But providing a free and open (for white students) public schooling option massively democratized secondary education. Free high school might have started out as regressive, or at least regressive-ish, but it made itself into a widely accepted public good.

Notice how differently we think about high school as a result. High school isn’t an investment you make to increase your worth in the labor market. It does increase your worth in the labor market, but it’s more than that. It’s a formative time, essential to people’s development into functioning adults in society. High school is a microcosm of, and essential preparation for, our entire civil society. This wasn’t even close to being the view before the high school movement. But once people were given the universal ability to go to high school, its value became obvious.

All that may be true, but there still could be reasons not to make college free for everyone. The alternative proposed by the well-meaning people who see free college as regressive or regressive-ish tends to be something like “affordable college for all” or “debt-free college for all.” They favor providing enough grant funding for poorer students to go to college for free, while still requiring richer students to pay tuition. (Note that some elite schools already employ this system by charging no tuition to students with family income below a certain level.) Their idea is to have the system work for everyone like it worked for me: Prove you can’t afford college and you get to go for free. If this could achieve the same result in terms of open access regardless of wealth, then, again, why pay for rich kids?

For one, because we almost certainly won’t get the same results. We already know that it is very, very difficult to design good means-testing for public benefits programs. It’s difficult to make sure that everyone who needs help gets it, and that no one who doesn’t need help doesn’t get it. Uptake for means-tested public benefits is notoriously low, and this is very understandable to anyone who has ever had to apply for those benefits. Applications are detailed and burdensome, and we often force poor people to spend hours waiting in nondescript offices, sometimes over multiple days, just to get the “benefits” to which they’re entitled.

And for college specifically, we already know that despite federal, state, and college aid programs meant to help disadvantaged students, Black students, women, and Black women in particular end up with more student debt than white male students. Not only that, but college is uniquely hard to means-test for. You can’t treat the students as independent because they’re often 18 years old and still dependent on their parents. Means-testing students on their own would mean nearly universal free college. But the students are technically adults, and it’s often inaccurate to assume that their parents will contribute the full amount they are expected to contribute. Some students are estranged from their parents and get no financial support. How can means-testing account for this? How can it account for this without giving parents and students incentives to lie about their relationships? Even the most delicately calibrated programs will struggle to address these complexities.

My college experience was nearly stymied by means-testing several times over. I wasn’t sure if there were programs for me, and I didn’t want to spend hours and days waiting in line to find out. I nearly gave up after the first day. I nearly gave up when I found out my parents would need to file tax returns. And then I nearly didn’t qualify for the Board of Governors’ fee waiver. It cut off at 150 percent of the federal poverty line, which meant I had to make less than about $15,000 per year. I was working for little more than minimum wage, but working a fair amount of overtime. If I had made another 50¢ an hour I would not have gone to college.

On top of all of that, it’s just not very pleasant to get means-tested benefits. It’s a regular, paperwork-heavy, extremely bureaucratic reminder that you are poor. We can work to lighten the paperwork and ease the bureaucracy, but so long as we’re means-testing we will still be making poorer students jump through hoops that other students can avoid. And some of those students not jumping through hoops will nonetheless need help, and will end up in debt.

Another trendy option right now put forward as an alternative to free college is income-sharing. Income-sharing arrangements would involve no one paying for college upfront, but everyone agreeing to pay a certain percentage of their income after graduation for a fixed amount of time. In their worse forms, these arrangements can be predatory and exploitative. But in the abstract they do have some obvious fairness appeal, in that the amount people pay is proportional to their income, and income-sharing probably could be better in many ways to the financing system we use now.

But income-sharing agreements are actually regressive and regressive-ish in important respects. First, income-sharing is similar to a flat tax, and flat taxes are effectively regressive. Everyone pays the same percentage, but 5% of your gross income means a lot more to you when you make $30,000 per year than it does when you make $500,000 per year. A flat income-sharing arrangement would be more regressive than our current progressive income tax system. Second, income-sharing doesn’t account for wealth. You and I might graduate from the same program and take jobs making the same amount of money. Our income-sharing payments will be the same. But I might be living rent-free in one of my (or my parents’) investment properties, while you are paying 1/3 or more of your income toward rent. Income-sharing agreements focus on income and are blind to wealth, but wealth is where the worst inequality lives.

What we need is a public high school movement for college. We’ve heard for years about the importance of insuring poorer and first-generation students have equal access to college. We celebrate first-generation college students. For-profit schools prey on the fact that even the most disadvantaged students feel an omnipresent pressure to go to college.

This isn’t just about increased earnings. College is a rite of passage, a unique experience now so common among adult Americans that a choice not to go to college is widely seen as unwise on the deepest level. And especially as elementary and high schools have turned increasingly away from self-directed learning and toward data-driven common core-type curricula, college is often the first time people get to get even the smallest taste of educational freedom, the first time they get to see just how much learning there is to be done. This is a deep value, and should absolutely be recognized as a public good.

Some dismiss this as a privileged view. It is a privilege to have access to all the world’s knowledge and the freedom and free time to explore at will. But that’s a privilege we should provide to everyone if we can. And we can! At age 18 I would have said it’s an unnecessary luxury and probably a societal waste for most, including me. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Free college is the efficient, non-stigmatizing way to open up college access for everyone without the burdens of means-testing. It doesn’t have to be regressive and, with any luck, it will follow the path of free high school: In short order it will be nearly universally accepted as a public good and a huge boon to everyone, especially those from poorer and working class backgrounds.

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