Who Would Actually Benefit From Free College?

Sculpture of Atlant

Atlas | Source: iStock

Picture the statue of Atlas struggling to hold the entire world on his shoulders. Now replace Atlas with a college student, and the globe with a stack of student debt obligations, and you’ve got a pretty good representation of the college debt atmosphere in the United States. College debt is soaring in America, and it’s stunting the ability for those college graduates to contribute to the economy in the same ways their parents did. The price of college has exploded in the last generation, leaving many young workers in cities across the U.S. unable to purchase a home or be able to afford children at the same ages previous generations did.

With increasing anxiety about the student debt burden, proposals for free college programs are getting some serious, legitimate attention. None have received such close scrutiny as Senator Bernie Sanders’s plan, which would use tax money to create tuition-free options for many students across the country. The plan has been vetted the most during Sanders’s run for president. Whether Sanders wins the Democratic nomination is a bit besides the point — part of his success is that he’s pushing agenda items like free higher education to the forefront.

While starting the conversation on a national stage is important, there are some concerns about whether Sanders offers a viable plan for providing more affordable education. One analysis by The Brookings Institution suggests that the plan would indeed help many students pay for college — they’re just not the students who need the most help to begin with.

Who would benefit from free college tuition the most?

“Under the Sanders free college proposal, families from the top half of the income distribution would receive 24% more in dollar value from eliminating tuition than students from the lower half of the income distribution,” Brookings Institution senior fellow Matthew M. Chingos writes.

Sanders’s campaign says the senator’s plan would make tuition and fees for all public schools free. But the fees don’t cover room and board, books, and other necessities, which means families of every income level will still need to come up with that money. Since more affluent families can afford higher room and board costs at more expensive universities, they’re also predicted to take a larger chunk of the tuition money.

For his analysis, Chingos divided current college students into four quartiles based on their family income. He adds in existing grant aids, that can presumably be used to help pay for room and board, books, and other expenses aside from tuition. Even with free tuition and those existing grants, students in the bottom half of national income would still need to come up with almost $18 billion to cover the costs of attending college.

Loans, college competition

concept of student loan debt

Student loan debt | Source: iStock

That’s not to say that the plan wouldn’t help, at least in some ways. Those same bottom groups would have about $13.5 billion in tuition expenses wiped clean, across all public two-year and four-year universities. The amount of loans all students take has fallen in the past few years, according to College Board, but the percentage of students who take federal subsidized and unsubsidized loans has increased. Students are borrowing less money from the federal government on average, but the number of students who need to borrow at least a little money increased over the past decade, from 28% in the 2004-2005 school year to 36% in the 2014-2015 year. More students need help covering the cost of college, and free tuition could certainly help with those burdens.

However, college still wouldn’t be “free,” at least in the most literal of senses. And paying additional expenses isn’t likely the only issue, Chingos concludes. The author’s study treats all other factors involved with college choices the same, including where students from various income levels typically attend. But if public schools offer free tuition, the competition to get into those schools might increase, as students who would otherwise attend private institutions apply instead for the significantly less expensive public schools. More competition would make it tougher for students to get into the public schools in the first place, regardless of income.

Would free tuition make it easier for many students to attend college? Most likely. In many cases, it would make the ending loan burden at least a little lighter for students, too. But too often this rhetoric is paired with “evening the playing field” for all prospective college students. While it could make things easier on many students of all incomes, the playing field certainly won’t be any more level than is is now.

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