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.