Why We Need Free College for Everyone — Even Rich People

Centrists claim free college is a giveaway to the rich. That’s just a smokescreen for their opposition to universal social programs.

Bernie Sanders speaks on topics such as making public colleges and universities tuition-free during a "Come Together and Fight Back" tour on April 19, 2017 in Miami, Florida. Joe Raedle / Getty Images

“Now, I’m a little different from those who say free college for everybody,” clarified Hillary Clinton in 2016, taking aim at her opponent in the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders. “I am not in favor of making college free for Donald Trump’s kids.”

With this objection, Clinton appeared to beat Sanders, the nation’s political leader on matters of economic inequality, at his own game. She was standing up to the rich, or so it seemed. Her contention was that universal tuition-free public college would be a giveaway to the wealthy, who don’t need any help attaining a degree.

Instead Clinton advocated increasing public financial aid and adjusting eligibility requirements, making college easier to attend for a subset of low-income students but continuing to extract tuition from those who don’t meet specific criteria. This policy approach, known as means testing, is cherished by moderates in the Democratic Party. (Republicans, for their part, are less inclined to nuance and are known to aggressively assail social programs wherever possible.)

But despite appearances, Democrats’ attraction to means testing is not rooted in a firm commitment to maximum equality. Plainly put, they like means testing because targeted social programs cost less public money than universal social programs. Means testing allows them to limit taxes on their ruling-class donor base while still superficially appeasing their working-class voter base. Means testing is an expression of establishment Democrats’ timid middle-ground politics, and their opposition to free college is no different.

Now universal tuition-free public college is back in the spotlight, with Sanders running for president again and joined by fellow proponent Elizabeth Warren. And Clinton’s rationale has made a comeback, too, this time most clearly articulated by presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg. Buttigieg has added a twist to the argument: people who go to college come from wealthier families, so to make public college free would be to publicly subsidize the already privileged. Nevermind that steep tuition is an obvious explanation for this state of affairs to begin with.

Like Clinton, Buttigieg prefers means-tested financial aid and spins his aversion to universal social programs as inequality-conscious policy. But the political center’s purported concern about subsidizing the rich is sleight of hand. Means testing isn’t about advocating for the poor against the rich: it’s a time-honored method of placating both at once, ultimately at the expense of the former. The only way to fight for the interests of the working-class majority against those of the wealthy minority is to build universal social programs that can withstand attacks for decades to come.

Who Really Pays?

There are major errors in centrist Democrats’ thinking about free public college, and they deserve a good debunking.

For one thing, the centrist account elides the fact that Sanders’s and now Warren’s plans are funded through progressive taxation. In both of these scenarios, the people paying the most for free public college for everyone are the rich. The difference is that the payment takes the form of collective taxes over the course of a lifetime, not individual tuition costs over the course of a few years. Were he to attend a public college, Donald Trump’s son Barron wouldn’t be charged tuition, but he wouldn’t exactly attend for free, either. His family would pay extra, year after year, for the existence of a robust public higher-education system.

But Barron Trump will probably not attend a public university at all. The affluent are much more likely to send their kids to elite private colleges, as Donald Trump did with all four of his older children. So in a future where public colleges are tuition-free and funded by progressive taxes, the rich are going to do one of two things: pay higher taxes and send their kids to the same public colleges as everyone else, or pay higher taxes and pay private tuition on top of that to keep their kids in elite environments.

The former, though unlikely to happen at first, would certainly improve the quality of education provided at public colleges, as the rich would suddenly find it in themselves to care. But either way, they’re shelling out considerably more money than their low-income compatriots. If moderates are truly opposed to letting the rich off the hook, they should have no qualms with Sanders’s and Warren’s plans, which soak the rich to fund college for all.

For the purposes of shrinking the yawning wealth gap, soaking the rich is good in its own right. But it’s not the only reason progressives and socialists want to eliminate tuition at public colleges. Our eye is not just on where the money comes from, but what it goes toward: the freedom of all people to further their education if they want it, regardless of the circumstances of their birth.

People shouldn’t have to go to college to be able to attain a decent standard of living. The pursuit of higher education should be a personal choice, and wages and benefits should be high enough across the board that someone who chooses not to attend college can make ends meet and more. But right now, steep tuition and ensuing debt are major factors limiting social mobility and life choices for countless people who may have an appetite for continued education. For the working class, the situation is damned if you do and damned if you don’t: either forgo college and limit your employment options or take on major debt to get a degree. This is an untenable situation, and one we must take decisive action to end.

Removing financial barriers to attending college is one such measure. Sanders’s plan extends to trade schools as well; the point is not to glorify a particular life path or imply that a college education ought to be necessary, but to give everyone the opportunity to prepare for the future however they see fit without doing major financial damage to themselves and their families in the process.

If college were free, we’d see student-body demographics change dramatically. Buttigieg is right that people who go to college today tend to come from wealthier families, but that’s not necessarily a permanent reality; in fact, it’s that way largely because college is so expensive. Eliminating tuition would go a long way toward making higher education and expanded life options a possibility for working-class people. Our work against economic inequality wouldn’t end there, but that’s no reason not to implement a completely achievable reform that would open up new horizons for millions. As Sanders puts it:

You are not truly free when you graduate college with hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt. You are not truly free when you cannot pursue your dream of becoming a teacher, environmentalist, journalist or nurse because you cannot make enough money to cover your monthly student loan payments. And you are not truly free when the vast majority of good-paying jobs require a degree that requires taking out tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to obtain.

Miles of Red Tape

But why can’t we just design a public financial aid system that identifies exactly how much tuition help a person needs and gives it to them, instead of making the whole thing publicly funded? This is the ideal held aloft by proponents of means testing. The problem with it is twofold: it’s a nightmare to execute, and the end result is politically vulnerable. With all of means testing’s messy externalities, we’d be better off expending our energy and resources on building universal social programs that can stand the test of time.

Means-tested programs are designed to differentiate, cherry-pick, and exclude, which means they’re guarded by miles of red tape. The process of enrolling is often elaborate, the criteria convoluted and stringent, and the thresholds arbitrary, meaning that people swiftly move in and out of eligibility without dramatic changes in their actual level of need. People frequently get dropped from programs without warning, forcing them to drastically change course in their personal lives. And the benefits are rarely complete — the majority of federal student aid recipients take out loans, just as many welfare recipients turn to payday lenders to pay the bills.

The price of public colleges rose 34 percent between 2006 and 2016, while wages fell. People are strapped for cash, but a college degree grows increasingly important for employment prospects. Sometimes when people need aid for which they aren’t technically eligible, they’ll go to extremes to get it. Online, you can find advice to high school seniors to get married in order to exclude their parents’ income from consideration by financial aid offices. You can also find loving couples floating the possibility of getting divorced in order to be eligible for more financial aid for their children’s college educations.

The hustle is a natural consequence of a confusing, arbitrary, and imprecise system designed to cut people out. Most of the hustlers aren’t rich; the truly wealthy can afford to simply pay tuition and move on, no marriages or divorces necessary. Anyone going to great lengths to secure means-tested benefits is likely situated just above the cutoff point and trying to avoid taking on loans that could capsize them.

In any case, the hustlers are extreme outliers. The vast majority of working-class people who might otherwise consider going to college are simply too daunted and demoralized by the process of acquiring financial aid to even try. In 2017, $2.3 billion in federal student aid money went unclaimed. Meanwhile, the number-one reason people give for not attending college is perceived unaffordability. The program isn’t reaching the people it’s meant to.

This is actually part of means testing’s appeal for centrist politicians who have made promises to both the rich and the rest, and who require techniques for appearing to uphold them simultaneously. The more difficult it is for people to prove themselves deserving of aid, the fewer people will attempt and succeed. This means fewer program enrollees, which saves money, which allows politicians to get away with slashing taxes for the rich, balancing budgets, and continuing to promise the working class that they have its best interests at heart. It’s a win-win-win for centrist politicians, and a victory for the wealthy. But the working class — thwarted, puzzled, and intimidated — loses out.

Means-tested programs are held up as evidence that a politician or party is taking a particular social problem, like staggering tuition and student debt, seriously. But all too often, and for far too many people, these programs don’t actually provide the relief they promise on the scale they claim. That failure is actually built into the model, with unavoidable political consequences.

The (Un)Deserving Poor

In addition to being administratively nightmarish, means-tested programs are politically flimsy. From health care to housing to education, those who are struggling but don’t qualify for aid are quick to become resentful of those who do, and this resentment is easy for politicians to exploit as they seek to erode and eliminate social benefits.

When you set strict parameters around who qualifies for aid, you invite conservative elements to attack the parameters — a battle pitched in their favor. Any program designed for the “deserving poor” can be straightforwardly undermined by evoking the specter of the “undeserving poor.” For example, Medicaid is specifically for low-income people. It is in essence a charitable gift that society’s more privileged members furnish for its most vulnerable. Conservatives leap at the opportunity to renegotiate the terms of the gift, which is why you see phenomena like the introduction of work requirements as a condition of Medicaid eligibility.

The stated purpose of work requirements for Medicaid is to induce lazy people to get jobs (in reality, the vast majority of Medicaid recipients already have jobs), but the real purpose is to frustrate the enrollment process and thin the rolls to make room in state budgets for corporate giveaways. Meanwhile, the rhetoric that politicians use to justify their assault on means-tested social programs is dripping with resentment and blame. It stigmatizes recipients, fans the flames of prejudice, and sows distrust. Political fights over the parameters of these programs are a recipe for heightened hostility and eroded solidarity in the broader culture.

People who might qualify for aid are easily discouraged by the headache-inducing bureaucracy they must navigate to secure it. People who don’t are easily convinced that recipients are undeserving and sponging off the system. All of this makes means-tested programs generally unpopular and politically fragile. That’s why socialists point out that targeted social programs make easy targets. Or as Wilbur Cohen — an architect of popular and durable universal social programs including Social Security and Medicare — put it, “Programs for the poor make for poor programs.”

Describing Bernie Sanders’s plan to eliminate all student debt without exception, a corollary to his tuition-free college proposal, his national press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, delivered a clear political argument to this effect:

Universality is the most time tested way of keeping issues from devolving into a fight between the middle class and the poor, which is really what the one percent want. Just look at Social Security and Medicare. Two of the most popular programs in this country provide for everyone, regardless of income. And that’s exactly why those programs have withstood assault from Republicans and moderate Democrats for decades, all while programs like food stamps, Section 8 housing, welfare, even the ACA have come under assault. Everyone’s grandma benefits from Social Security, so it’s hard to pitch it as a program for the “undeserving poor.”

Partners in Prosperity

Universal social programs operate by a totally different logic than means-tested programs. They materialize when a society decides that it wants a certain opportunity to be enshrined as a social right.

We have public K-12 schools in this country because we decided that adolescent education was a basic right that should be enjoyed by all, because society is better that way. We have a universal postal system because we decided that we should all be able to send and receive mail — even those who live in remote, rural areas — and we agreed to pay taxes based on income to make it possible. We have Social Security and Medicare because we concluded that all people — us, our friends, our enemies — ought to be able to live out their final years with dignity. We do not have a public health-insurance system yet, but increasingly the American public is realizing that health care ought to be one of those things that everyone pays for and everyone gets, because the alternative is barbaric and dehumanizing.

If means-tested programs are chaotic and politically delicate engines of division, universal social programs are elegant and politically sturdy engines of solidarity. At their best, they engender in people a sense of collective investment and common cause. Everybody chips in what they can, and everybody enjoys the fruits of their contributions. The programs are accessible, legible, and visible to all. Universal social programs feel not like begrudging charity but like a mutual endeavor, for which all bear responsibility and from which all benefit. Society is plainly elevated by mass participation and collaboration.

With the exception of the wealthy, most of whom will always resent having to pay high taxes for things they can personally afford on their own, people who live in societies with guaranteed social rights come to view each other not as obstacles to individual success, but as partners in prosperity. Where a meager means-tested welfare-state model breeds alienation and competition, a robust universal welfare-state model breeds trust and cooperation. These qualities are necessary to develop a foundation from which to launch other ambitious social projects, and to progress as a society.

Universal social programs are not completely invulnerable to attack — consider the encroachment of charter schools on the existing public school system. But they do create mass constituencies willing to defend them that might not otherwise exist, such as when teachers, parents, and students recently mobilized to defend public education in a wave of militant teachers’ strikes. When social goods are enshrined as rights, they are not so easily taken away.

In Britain, the National Health Service (NHS) faces assault from neoliberal privatizers. It’s a scary prospect, but the attempted dismantling is no simple task. A recent poll found that seven in ten people “back the basic principle behind the NHS – that healthcare should be funded from general taxation for everyone.” (Just 4 percent said they believed in an American-style system.) In 2012, the opening ceremony at the Olympic Games in London featured a tribute to the NHS, with dancers dressed like patients and nurses encircling the beloved acronym. The conservative politician Nigel Lawson, himself responsible for a great deal of privatization under Margaret Thatcher, once said that the NHS “is the closest thing the English have to a religion.” The attacks from the Right may keep coming, but the public isn’t budging.

American conservatives assert that higher education should not be considered a right at all, that people should be compelled on threat of social failure to simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps. To make this argument, conservatives necessarily ignore all the available data, concrete and anecdotal, demonstrating how impossible it is for the vast majority of people — subsisting on stagnating wages and faced with skyrocketing living costs — to save for an education that grows substantially more expensive by the decade, but which is necessary in many cases to lay the foundation for a prosperous career.

Liberals, on the other hand, tend to agree that people should be able to go to college if they so desire, and that high financial barriers to entry stifle opportunity and exacerbate wealth inequality. They simply prefer a weaker and less politically wise solution — because they favor prevarication over a straightforward left-wing politics that antagonizes the rich and builds the power and solidarity of the working class.

Socialists know better than centrist liberals. We know that everyone has a right to an education and a decent living, and that tuition-free public college is an achievable reform that brings us closer to that vision. And we know that the best way to build programs that can withstand inevitable attempts at unraveling is to make them universal, so that they can become popular, beloved, and woven into the fabric of our culture.

So, in answer to Clinton’s concern about whether Trump’s offspring ought to be allowed to attend free college, the answer is a resounding yes. Everyone means everyone. We can have a complex system of subsidies that barely works and that nobody loves, or we can have a single universal social program known as “public college” that is tax-funded, tuition-free, and available to all.

The latter is the obvious choice. If this happens in our lifetimes, and if our children are for some reason compelled to attend class with Trump’s, that will be a negligible price to pay for a society that affirms every person’s right to a future.