Red, Right and Blue: Free college isn’t free

(Katelyn Strathy/CU Independent Graphic)

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Our economy is hyper-competitive, our middle class is under-prepared and higher education is a democratic right.

These are the claims from proponents of tuition-free higher education. I’ll admit, they’re compelling. Even after taking the Democratic Party by storm in 2016, free college now finds support among a full half of Republicans as well. Sometimes conservatives, too, just want free stuff.

But, either in preparing the middle class for our hyper-competitive economy or in simply breaking down the barriers to social mobility, free college isn’t a solution. It makes tuition more attainable, sure, but it doesn’t make an education more attainable.

Poverty does not simply disappear because tuition falls to zero. Until both political parties join a discussion on improving sustainable social mobility in America, the misguided infatuation with “free college” is only going to, at best, confuse the problem and, at worst, seriously hurt the very people for whom it is designed to help most.

First, tuition is only one part of every college student’s story. It’s a big expense, to be sure, but for many state schools the costs of housing, transportation and student fees can quickly rack up an even bigger bill. And these are still only the purely financial barriers to higher education.

Even if they are accepted, as many as 40 percent of low-income students won’t show up the first day. While tuition sticker shock plays a role, these students are also the least likely to graduate even after they’ve started.

Many of their concerns are financial, but others are more structural. On average, low-income schools do not prepare students for higher education as well as affluent schools. Low-income children generally do not have a support system stressing the attainability of a higher education years in advance — as their affluent counterparts do — making college seem out of reach early on, which in turn discourages their application altogether. This support system is invaluable both in the preparation for and during the college experience.

So again, poverty does not disappear just because tuition does. Graduating more low-income students from college requires a tremendous and sustained investment in both K-12 and higher education, improving access to counseling and mentorship and investing much more in comprehensive student services.

But is this the goal of proponents of free college?

Overwhelmingly, policies concerning tuition-free higher education ignore the extenuating factors I’ve mentioned. Beyond that, who is paying for these proposals?

Senator Sanders and Secretary Clinton wanted to tax Wall Street. A few House Republicans — and another CU Independent opinion writers — have argued that burgeoning endowments should lower the costs of tuition. And New York’s Excelsior Scholarship — the only program to expand free tuition to students at the four-year level — falls to the taxpayers.

There are problems with each approach. While taxing Wall Street is popular — especially in the wake of a global financial meltdown — it is money out of your pocket just as much as it is money out of Wall Street’s. The financial transaction tax proposed by Senator Sanders would hit professional investors hard but would equally sap money away from retirement savings and, ironically enough, college endowments.

To that point, college endowments are only one of many factors that contribute to an institution’s total funding. So, all else equal, larger endowments should lower the burden of the school’s operating costs from falling on tuition. But given historically low state support for higher education, institutions are forced to raise tuition to balance their budgets because larger endowments simply aren’t enough to close the gap. Tuition reductions from endowments are more a non-solution than a bad solution, yet that is only a meager consolation.

But by far and away, the worst plan — pursued by Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York state legislature — is to just front the bill to taxpayers. College is pursued disproportionately by those who are well-off.

Proponents claim this is driven by tuition and, in part, it is. But it’s also driven by the reality that affluent students have better test scores, better grades and a better chance of success in college, all factors that contribute heavily to college admissions decisions.

Removing one barrier to higher education — tuition — will do incredibly little until the college preparedness of low-income students is brought up to a level commensurate with their affluent counterparts. Free tuition only helps students who actually get into college, and that is a big part of the problem.

So long as higher education is disproportionately pursued by the well-off — and it will be until the second part of that problem is addressed — then fronting the bill to taxpayers will only benefit the affluent at the expense of the rest.

Social welfare programs have been intended to keep the least well-off afloat, never to help the most well-off stay sky-high. Why should anyone’s path to a permanently higher income be the burden of the lowest-income earners?

And yet, the policies pursued by Senator Sanders, Governor Cuomo and Congressman Ellison do exactly that: they make poor people pay for rich kids’ education while providing low-income students relief from only one of many barriers they face to higher education. Even in the case of the aforementioned Excelsior Scholarship, the rich will benefit most. While the scholarship technically has an income threshold, that threshold is being phased out.

Funding should be stripped from those who don’t need it in order to pay the non-tuition expenditures of those who need it most — expenditures including books, housing and fees. And, more comprehensively, much more money should be invested in lower-income schools to better prepare their students for a successful experience in higher education.

After all, college is an opportunity, not a commodity. Social welfare programs that address higher education need to start by conferring upon all students the ability to take advantage of that opportunity. Only then will the American Dream of social mobility be truly possible.

Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Henry Bowditch at

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