Is Clinton’s Free College Plan Just?

Eastern University president Dr. Duffett wrote an article in August for the Philadelphia Inquirer arguing for the inclusion of private colleges in Hillary Clinton’s plan for free college. Clinton’s proposed New College Compact ensures free tuition at four-year public colleges for every student whose family’s annual earnings are $85,000 or less, with that amount growing to $125,000 by 2021. While this plan is heralded as providing free college, “free” actually means subsidized by wealthy taxpayers. Sadly, the plan would not necessarily be as just or as effective at diminishing inequality as advocates would have you believe, as evidenced by the following three points:

First, under this plan taxpayers will be paying to subsidize all of the college bill for a large number of families who could afford to pay at least some of that bill, which is hardly fair to those taxpayers. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that the average household income in 2014 was $53,657. Clinton’s plan would ensure free tuition, not just for all of the students in a median American family, but also for a significant number of Americans who make more than that median amount but still less than $85,000. Her plan would cover students whose family earns $31,343 above the median household income. The Census Bureau reports that there was an increase in the median income of less than $5,000 from 2013 to 2014 (in keeping with a decade of little growth), so even assuming the median were to increase by $5,000 each year from 2014 to 2021, by 2021, families earning $36,343 more than the average American family would qualify for free tuition. Under this plan, by 2021, wealthy taxpayers would have to pay the entire college bill for families who could potentially be making close to $36,000 more than the average American family.

Second, research suggests that taxpayers would be subsidizing a large percentage of students who will never complete their degree. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that an astonishing 42 percent of students who enroll at public colleges do not complete their degree. Clinton plans to force wealthy Americans to pay for the college education of thousands of students who will not finish their degree–students who will have no economic incentive to value an education they will not be paying to receive.

Finally, in a report for Brookings Institute entitled “Who would benefit most from free college?”, analyst Matthew Chingos reports on his research, which finds that free college benefits higher-income families more than low-income families to the tune of a $16 billion dollar value versus $13.5 billion. This disparity is because even without tuition, students must still pay significant expenses such as housing for residents or transportation for commuters, as well as textbooks. Thus, while the burden for paying for free college would unequally rest on wealthier Americans, this subsidization would still not solve income inequality.

While the plan for “free” college sounds great initially, there are reasons to question the merits of this particular plan. When examined closely, forcing one small demographic to pay for the education of everyone else might actually be an injustice.

Sources: Brookings Institute, National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Census Bureau

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