The Argument for Free College

In Dissent, I explained the case against free college. The short of it is that, because of who attends college and what kind of colleges they attend, free college is simply not an egalitarian benefit. To me, that calls into question the entire benefit category. What precisely is the point of subsidizing goods that poor people don’t really use that much?

Generally, I see two credible points made: 1) it’s important to ensure access for the few poor that do matriculate, and 2) it’s important to ensure graduates who have economic outcomes far below the average don’t suffer. These are good enough points, but it seems like a system of public loans and income-based loan repayment solves both of them.

In the cross-country welfare literature, it is taken for granted that free college is, by itself, an inegalitarian benefit. Those who advocate for it despite this generally say free college is instrumentally useful insofar as it helps bind the rich to the welfare state. That is, when presented as a welfare benefit and even administered by the welfare agency (as student living grants generally are in the countries that use them), it can help engender broad-based solidarity and support for welfare institutions. Additionally, the aggregate gains from more educational attainment (if they exist) create more national income for use in welfare benefits and the fact that college was provided to people by the welfare state makes it hard for them to argue that the gains from college degrees belong exclusively to college degree holders.

These seem like fair enough points, but the problem I keep raising is that US free college campaigners are not making these points. Worse than that, they are actually making points that are antagonistic to using free college instrumentally to help promote the welfare state. You hear from politicians and some advocates that college students deserve the benefits because they have worked hard and merit it. This would imply that the benefits are a just reward for striving rather than a welfare handout indistinguishable from any other welfare handouts. In my view, that needs to change.

With that said, I think the free college people are also missing some other arguments in this debate. If it were me, I would emphasize two points that I don’t generally see people emphasize.

First, making public college free is shockingly cheap. Estimates differ, but Jordan Weissman has pegged it consistently in the $60-80 billion range at the highest end. That’s less than 0.5% of GDP. If you put the additional revenue needed for it on top of the overall US government revenue, it doesn’t exactly make our tax level unmanageable.

Second, free public college (as with public paid leave, public health insurance, and similar programs) simply takes one major worry of parents off the table. That is, it gives parents one less bell to toll, freeing them up to live their lives, rather than having to manage complicated financial projections in order to pay for college. And this is true of all parents, since they all seem to think college is a possibility for their kid.

This, I think, is one of the most underrated benefits of public welfare in general. Right now, a typical “ideal” adult has to coordinate 401ks/IRAs for retirement and 529s for their kids’ college. They have to figure out how to cobble together leave from work when they have kids (annual leave, sick leave, advanced leave, unpaid leave). They have to figure out how to cobble together health insurance (does the employer offer it? do I get on my spouse’s insurance or do they get on mine? which of the 10 options do I pick and how do I know?). They have to buy life insurance, disability insurance, save money in case of unemployment, and so on and so on. It’s kind of hellish.

But a robust welfare state just takes a lot of these kinds of things off your plate. Wouldn’t it be nice to just live your life knowing that benefits for retirement, disability, unemployment, paid leave, health insurance, and education are there for you? Wouldn’t it be nice not having to spend your finite time on this earth trying to coordinate tons of different accounts and employment relationships (and bear the risk and uncertainty of those accounts and relationships) in order to meet these kinds of needs? I think it would be nice and I think free college advocates miss opportunities to justify it on these grounds.

The Left Wing of the Fundable

Conor P. Williams has a piece at 74 million that dabbles in a genre I’ve been meaning to comment on for a while. The nut of it is suggested by the title: Liberals Push to Correct Inequality — Just Not If It Involves Opening Up Our Neighborhood Schools.

Now I have little faith that liberals actually care much about correcting inequality in any meaningful sense. Most seem to have an abstract commitment to it, but would not be willing to impose the 45% tax level to make it happen. I have no interest in defending such people as a class, but I find the specific posturing of education reformers on this very strange.

In his piece, Williams hems and haws around for a bit until noting: isn’t it weird that affluent liberal whites won’t advocate for charter schools arrangements wherein their kids might go to school alongside poor black kids? Isn’t it weird that these supposed liberals advocate “neighborhood schools” that have the effect of achieving racial and class segregation in some areas? This is not weird, of course. Whites are racist against Blacks and Latinos and rich people don’t like mingling with poor people (especially when they are Black or Latino). This is true more generally and has little to do with schools in particular.

After pointing this out (in somewhat more muted ways), Williams goes on to cast his support of things like charter schools and school choice (and whatever) as indicating that he and his ilk are the real upstanding guys in all of this. But I am not sure he really makes a good case on this point.

You see, we know very well how to integrate schools along class and racial lines. It’s called busing and we used to do it. Yet, isn’t it weird that Williams never writes about busing? Isn’t it weird that you hardly hear a peep out of that entire gang about busing? Why don’t they advocate for explicit integration through busing instead of these charter schools which may or may not even have a desegregating effect (and even where it does, not nearly to the same degree as busing would). Isn’t it awfully convenient that these folks say they definitely care about school integration and inequality but refuse to advocate for the most effective solution for it?

When pressed on this, one of the responses you will hear is that they don’t see practically (speaking in political terms) how we can get busing. But why would people oppose busing, one has to wonder. Is it because they don’t want to send their kids to school with poors and blacks? But wait, isn’t that the same reason they don’t like charters? Isn’t the opposition the same to both things? Why advocate one thing that runs up against a brick wall due to racism and dislike of the poor but not another thing that runs up against the same brick wall?

There are two basic answers here.

The first is that the charters don’t promise integration (and in many cases brag about how segregated they are, e.g. KIPP gleaming about how uniformly poor and black their schools are). So the reformers sidestep the hurdle of the racist affluent white liberal by basically giving in entirely to their desire for segregation, which charters don’t threaten that much if at all.

The second is that practicality is defined here in terms of what you might call the Left Wing of the Fundable. You can get money to push for charter schools and privatization and breaking teacher/public unions (all things the education reformers push, including right now Students First pushing a SCOTUS case that aims to eliminate all public sector union security, not just for teachers). You can get a fellowship at a think tank to push for those types of things. They are thus practical in the sense that there are enough rich people and institutions with somewhat mixed interests that are willing to pony up the money necessary to push them through our hilariously undemocratic political system and to fund a healthy number of advocate jobs. The same money doesn’t exist for busing advocacy.

So who then is really the intrepid supporter for integration in all of this, I am left to ask. Is the education reformer who dare not say a peep about busing because it’s outside of the Left Wing of the Fundable and too radically integrationist the real no-nonsense advocate willing to say what needs to be said? I don’t think so.

What are the costs of attending college?

The college financing debate has a lot of weird quirks in it. One of those weird quirks is what gets spoken of as the costs of attending college. Consider the following three costs:

  1. Opportunity costs (i.e. foregone income in the years you are studying).
  2. Direct costs of college itself (i.e. tuition, books, fees, etc.).
  3. Living expenses.

Number (1) is a cost of attending college because it represents the amount of earnings you give up to attend. Number (2) is also a cost of attending college because it is literally what you shell out to buy the instruction, books, and so on.

Number (3), however, is not a cost of attending college. This is because you will have living expenses whether you attend college or not. Those who do not matriculate into college also have expenses for rent, food, transportation, and so on. It’s not going to college that makes you need money for room and board: it’s simply existing that does.

A public benefits regime aimed at offsetting the personal costs of college would target (1) and (2). Yet advocates of such regimes actually target (2) and (3). This seems to be a more successful public relations strategy, but it also puts them in the weird situation where they are saying public benefits should cover the rent and food of the (relatively better off) kids who go to college but not the rent and food of the (relatively worse off) kids who don’t.