The Rotunda at the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Virg. Students at four-year flagship universities would see the biggest benefits from free-tuition programs. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

 To make college affordable, should we create a scholarship program that gives the biggest financial rewards to students from rich families? Put that way, it’s hard to imagine such a program becoming politically popular, particularly on the left. Yet some of the “free college” plans touted by many Democratic presidential contenders would do just that. They generally would provide the largest benefits to those with the greatest capacity to pay.

What is now an arms race in proposed spending on “free tuition” programs started when Tennessee passed a plan for free community college in 2014; President Barack Obama then proposed a national program for free community college in 2015. Bernie Sanders made free college a pillar of his 2016 presidential campaign, prodding Hillary Clinton to embrace a similar plan after her nomination.

The scope of these proposals keeps growing. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) announced last month a plan to allow every student to attend a public two-year or four-year college “without paying a dime in tuition or fees,” setting aside the income caps in the Clinton and Sanders plans — and she also unveiled an ambitious student-debt relief program. (Warren says the free tuition, debt forgiveness and other benefits would cost $1.25 trillion over 10 years.)

Headline-grabbing proposals like Warren’s underscore the legitimate public concerns about college affordability. Rising prices at public colleges and universities and stagnant incomes have made paying for college a huge challenge for most working-class and middle-income families, not just for the very poor. 

But going from too high a price to $0, regardless of family need, is neither logical nor sustainable. A national free-tuition plan would provide disproportionate benefits to the relatively affluent while leaving many low- and moderate-income students struggling to complete the college degrees that many jobs now demand. Ironically, free-tuition programs would exacerbate inequality even as they promise to level the playing field. 

The existing state free-tuition plans, and the proposed national ones, vary in their details: Rhode Island and Tennessee offer two years of free tuition at a community college, while New York promises free tuition at public two- and four-year schools, if students attend full time and stay in New York for as many years as they studied. But in general, the plans make up the difference between financial aid — such as the Pell Grant and need-based aid provided by states — and the published price of public colleges. 


This means the largest rewards go to students who do not qualify for financial aid. In plans that include four-year colleges, the largest benefits go to students at the most expensive four-year institutions. Such schools enroll a greater proportion of well-heeled students, who have had better opportunities at the K-12 level than their peers at either two-year colleges or less-selective four-year schools. (Flagship institutions have more resources per student, too.) In-state tuition and fees for 2018-2019 were $17,653 at the University of Virginia, for example, and on that campus, about 10 percent of full-time in-state students come from families with incomes less than $48,000. In contrast, tuition at Northern Virginia Community College, which has a significantly higher proportion of low-income students, is $5,610.

 Many low-income students receive enough aid from sources like the Pell Grant to cover their tuition and fees. At community colleges nationally, for example, among students from families with incomes less than $35,000, 81 percent already pay no net tuition after accounting for federal, state and institutional grant aid, according to survey data for 2015-16. At four-year publics, almost 60 percent of these low-income students pay nothing. (Even with no tuition charges, low-income students face challenges paying for books, housing and other living expenses. Warren’s plan would let them use Pell Grants for such costs, while still receiving free tuition, a significant development that gives poor students help that other free-tuition plans don’t. But that doesn’t solve the overall unfairness of waiving all tuition regardless of need.) 

For a clearer picture of how regressive these policies are, consider how net tuition — again, that’s what most free-tuition plans cover — varies among students at different income levels at four-year institutions. For those with incomes less than $35,000, average net tuition was $2,300 in 2015-16; for students from families with incomes between $35,000 and $70,000, it was $4,800; for those between $70,000 and $120,000, it was $8,100; and finally, for families with incomes higher than $120,000, it was more than $11,000. (These figures don’t include living expenses.) 

All told, in terms of dollars spent, an estimated 38 percent of the benefits of a straightforward national free-tuition program for full-time students would flow to those from families with incomes above $120,000. About 8 percent of the benefits would go to students from families with incomes below $35,000.

Free-tuition programs also bypass a significant part of the population. When young people from low-income backgrounds drop out of high school or skip college, they obviously receive no help from these programs. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, another Democratic presidential candidate, was pilloried for pointing this out after he remarked, “As a progressive, I have a hard time getting my head around the idea of a majority who earn less because they didn’t go to college subsidizing a minority who earn more because they did.” But the problem of fairness is not solved even if non-college-attendees aren’t taxed to subsidize the program.

Nor is there much reason to think that setting tuition at zero would significantly boost enrollment and college completion. Price is not the only barrier: The dramatically unequal circumstances in which children grow up make college an unrealistic option for too many, no matter how low the price; they’re academically unprepared. Some of the money proposed to be spent to provide free tuition for high-income students might go, instead, to remedy such inequality, including by funding K-12 education.

Young people from high-income families benefit disproportionately from free-tuition programs not only because they are more likely to attend college than their lower-income peers but also because they complete more years of college. Students from the top quartile of the income distribution are about 2.75 times as likely as low-income students to receive a bachelor’s degree. 

A progressive educational policy should offer much more narrowly targeted help for students. It should also make increased funding for colleges a higher priority. One of the most important things we can do to make college more affordable is to make sure students graduate in a timely manner and get their money’s worth. Too many students start college and never finish because their schools don’t have the resources to provide the academic and personal support they need to succeed. This also worsens the student debt problem, because these people face the worst of both worlds: debt without a marketable credential. Money saved by not giving well-off kids a free ride in college might be used to provide better counseling, more tutoring and more course offerings in high-demand subjects, among other things. There is ample evidence that boosting such resources has a larger impact on degree completion than reducing prices.

In fact, free-tuition policies might exacerbate the problem of insufficient resources. Outside an elite few, many public colleges are already underfunded. And what happens if the zero-tuition programs create pressure on states to cap tuition at current levels — because there is no appetite in Washington to increase the subsidies beyond the initial levels? If states are denied the ability to raise tuition, as costs rise, the resulting budget cuts would hit hardest at the non-selective public colleges and universities. These institutions serve many low- and moderate-income students — and they are the least likely to have alternative revenue sources from private donations or out-of-state students. 

Debt forgiveness, another major component of Warren’s plan, has its own problems. The majority of the benefits of debt forgiveness would also go to relatively high-income individuals: people who stayed in college long enough to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees, credentials that also enable them to handle some debt. One-third of borrowers, including most of those in low- and moderate-income households, owe less than $10,000.  

Debt-forgiveness and free-tuition programs share certain qualities: They are insufficiently focused on students and families who are really struggling to access the benefits of higher education. After all, it is not a problem that students borrow for college. It is a problem that some students borrow more than they can reasonably repay, and that too many students borrow and then leave school without a degree. Most graduates who owe money can already take advantage of programs that tie loan repayments to income levels, and that erase debt, most often after 20 years, but they are too complicated — and therefore underused. Those programs absolutely should be improved, better staffed, and better publicized.

But students who earn college degrees do much better financially than the average American worker throughout their lives. Reasonable people can disagree about what a sensible price for such a credential might be and how much debt it is justifiable for students to take on. Given the earnings power of a (good) degree, a price of zero seems unreasonably low.

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