Why Free Public Higher Education Is Not a Sop to the Upper Middle Class

Why Free Public Higher Education Is Not a Sop to the Upper Middle Class

Lots of bad op-ed stuff gets published in the New York Times and other mass circulation outlets, so I usually give it a pass, but today’s attack on free higher education by David Leonhardt is about my day job, so I have to make an exception.  He repeats the utterly bs line that, since most college students are from the upper half of the income spectrum, using public funds to pay their way is regressive.

No, no no!

First, why is the college student population so skewed to the higher brackets?  There are many reasons, but the financial burden of attending—not only tuition, but also the opportunity cost of not working—is a big factor.  The problem with free higher ed is that, the way it’s usually framed, it doesn’t go far enough.  As in European countries and elsewhere that take this issue seriously, students should not only get free tuition but a stipend.  We can afford and should demand the same.

Second, what Leonhardt doesn’t mention is the student-worker phenomenon, the crushing workload on college students holding down part time and even full time jobs.  Evergreen State College, where I work, just released the results from its survey of incoming students, and more than half expected to work to support themselves while attending classes, most of them more than 20 hours per week.  I see this reality every day in the classroom, where students struggle with not enough time to keep up with assignments, sometimes even nodding out to recover from a late night shift, or the emails apologizing for being absent because of a work schedule change.

College is hard.  It should be enough for students to commit to doing the academic work to the best of their ability; we shouldn’t ask anything more.

And finally we confront the economics.  Yes, even if college were free there would be high attendance rates among the better off.  There’s a simple solution for that, folks: tax the rich.  If we can’t finance a large expansion of education quality and affordability by shifting priorities away from nonproductive purposes (starting with military pork), increase taxes on the upper brackets.  It’s way better than means testing public support, which is Leonhardt’s suggestion.  Means testing is the enemy of the welfare state, and every time policies are drafted in this way they are politically poisonous and riddled with false negatives and positives that undermine their lofty targeting goals.  (Some legally independent students actual receive substantial support from their folks, while many who are supposed to be drawing on parental largesse aren’t.)

Don’t overthink it.  Make public higher ed free, provide stipends, and if it needs to be financed, raise the money progressively.

ps: I am sidestepping the question of debt foregiveness, because it’s more complicated.  Debt load is partially a function of college cost, and the pricier colleges, not surprisingly, serve wealthier students.  I can imagine a variety of responses to student debt overhang, a topic for another day.