How unequal would free college actually be?

So we know that rich kids go to college at significantly higher rates than poor kids and that rich kids pay significantly more than poor kids at any given university because of price discrimination. So here’s a fun question: if we made college free, how much more money would go to rich kids than to poor kids relative to the status quo? We actually have the numbers to figure this out, at least back-of-the-envelope style.

We know from The Century Foundation that in the top 147 colleges, students from the richest quarter of households make up 74 percent of the student body, while students from the poorest quarter of households make up just 3 percent of the student body. So we divide 74 by 3 to figure out that in these schools, the rich outnumber the poor 26.7 to 1.

We know from the College Board that, due to price discrimination, students from the poorest quarter of households pay just 55.7% (public) to 56.5% (private) of what students from the richest quarter of households pay for a given college. That figure is for the average net cost of attendance, which includes all costs, not just tuition. So we take 100 divided by 56.5 (the more conservative number) and get 1.8, which is to say the rich pay what the poor pay multiplied by 1.8.

So now we can take 26.7 and multiply it by 1.8 (minus the rounding) and get 43.66. This number tells us that for every dollar that free college would direct to poor kids, it would direct $43.66 to rich kids. This result is admittedly back-of-the-envelope, but it is not wildly out of the realm of possibility. Of course, if you trek below the top 147 schools, more poor kids start to pop up, but as you trek below the top 147 schools, the costs fall as well. So those two trends would offset each other (to what degree I do not know).

What we can say from the numbers that we do have is that free college would be massively unequal. I can’t think of any other program that has ever had so much currency on the left that hands over 40 times more money to the richest fourth than to the poorest fourth, but I guess that’s coalition politics for you.

One last thing: some will say that free college will actually boost the number of poor kids in college. I don’t doubt that at the margin this may be true, but it probably wont boost it much. The reason poor kids are under-represented in college is not really price: it’s that they are much less qualified than rich kids when college time comes around. Making college free wont change that.