The Injustice of Free College for All

Soon, enough Democrats will have entered the 2020 presidential race to cast a Broadway musical, ensemble included. Call it, Iowa!

Besides vying for center stage, many of those running will attempt to claim the mantle of the One True Progressive, supporting wealth taxes, reparations for slavery, universal child care services, increasing the minimum wage, and enacting Medicare for All.

Although each of these policies alone merits a substantive review, this piece focuses on another progressive proposal: the elimination of tuition at public colleges and universities.

TL;DR — tuition-free college benefits wealthy students while ignoring the other issues that limit enrollment among low-income populations

Note to reader: this piece draws from similar arguments in a post I wrote in 2016 and provides updates based on recently published literature.

The Problem and the Ostensible Solution

Compared to their high school-educated peers, college graduates typically earn 66% more annually and enjoy happier, healthier lives.

Currently, however, just 12% of US college students come from the bottom quintile of the family-income distribution, while the top fifth accounts for 28% of that make-up. This disparity is even greater for the most selective schools, where nearly 75% of students are from the highest socioeconomic quartile.

Worse still, this gap in educational attainment between high- and low-income students has only grown since the 1960s.

Expanding access to college education for students from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds could therefore be a potent driver of social mobility and help to decrease economic disparities.

With rising tuition costs, one might prematurely conclude that low-income students don’t attend college simply due to a lack of financial resources. The intuitive solution, then, is to make higher education more affordable by eliminating tuition fees.

But, it ain’t necessarily so. There are a range of factors beyond affordability that prevent low-income students from attending college:

  • Debt-aversion: Low-income students are particularly debt-averse and are less likely to use loans to finance their education compared to their middle- and high-income peers
  • Information: Students from disadvantaged backgrounds tend to be less knowledgeable about the college admissions process and the economic returns associated with post-secondary education
  • Preparation: The quality of primary and secondary public education in low-income neighborhoods doesn’t adequately prepare students for college entrance exams or college-level coursework, leading to lower rates of college admission and attendance

Solely making college free for everyone—regardless of economic background—and ignoring these other issues may therefore do little to close the attainment gap in higher education.

To be sure, higher education would be made more affordable, but mainly for wealthier students and those who are already attending college.

A Perverse Redistribution

At present, students from high-income families pay comparable rates to attend private colleges and out-of-state public schools. By making public colleges free, those students would be incentivized to switch to the cheaper public schools, potentially increasing competition for a limited number of seats and crowding out low-income applicants.

In 1993, Georgia introduced the HOPE scholarship, which provided free attendance at state colleges for middle- and high-income students earning at least a B average in their high school courses. For each additional $1,000 in scholarship funding, college attendance among students in those groups increased from 3.7 to 4.2 percentage points, which widened income and racial gaps in college attendance.

This shift among wealthier students to public colleges may also hurt smaller, private institutions, such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). In 2015, South Carolina Representative Jim Clyburn argued that HBCUs may be unintentionally defunded by decreased enrollment rates resulting from plans to make public higher education free.

As American education researcher D.B. Johnstone perhaps stated best, subsidizing higher education so as to make it free for the well-to-do is a

Perverse redistribution of income and status from the poor or the middle class to the wealthy.

Progressive policymakers could do much better than to broadly eliminate tuition for all students, especially if they are serious about advancing social equity.

Unfortunately, following Senator Bernie Sanders’ unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 2016, the prospect of eliminating college tuition has only become more politically palatable.

Some 60% of Americans support making public higher education free, a figure that crosses party lines. Among Democratic voters, this figure is as high as 78%, which rivals support for Medicare for All.

As we’ve seen, however, making college free for everyone is unlikely to expand post-secondary educational opportunities for students from low-income or disadvantaged backgrounds.

Potential Solutions


Removing tuition fees only for low-income students, such as those who are already eligible for Pell grants, may help to preclude the crowd-out effect mentioned earlier.

Indeed, this income-targeted approach has been proposed and implemented previously.

In her 2016 campaign, Hillary Clinton called for states to eliminate tuition fees for students from families who made less than $85,000 with that threshold raised to $125,000 by 2021.

A year later, Governor Andrew Cuomo launched the Excelsior Scholarship in New York, which makes all public two-year and four-year colleges tuition-free for students from families making below $125,000.

Similarly, a select number of public universities have started to provide full-tuition support for students from families making less than $60,000 annually, such as the Go Blue Guarantee from the University of Michigan.

This funding alone, however, might be insufficient to boost rates of college attendance among low-income students. Providing information to high school students solely about their eligibility for financial aid and tax benefits did not significantly impact their choice to apply and attend college (Bettinger et al., 2012; Bergman et al., 2017; Bergman et al., 2019).

In tandem with making college more affordable, a robust program that targets the incidence of misperceptions and misinformation about applying to college, financing higher education, and the economic benefits of college graduation must also be created.

Debt-Aversion and Information

Previous work shows that these two issues–debt-aversion among low-income students and the information gap about the college application process–must be tackled together.

While offering information about the affordability of college alone might not help to increase attendance rates, in other interventions, disseminating information about the economic returns to college did increase attendance (Oreopoulos and Dunn, 2013; Hurwitz and Smith, 2018).

Students from low-income backgrounds are more likely to attend college if they’re aware of the increases in income and quality of life that stem from post-secondary education.

An innovation initiative at the University of Michigan recently paired full tuition support for high-achieving low-income students with an intervention to address the “uncertainty about their suitability for an elite school, over-estimates of the (net) cost of college, and procedural barriers, such as financial aid forms.”

Compared to the control group, students who received the intervention were 44% more likely to apply to college and 8% more likely to still be enrolled in any college for two years consecutively.

Another intervention that informed low-income students about colleges they were qualified to attend and their expected financial aid packages led to a 12% increase in applications from those students and a 5% increase in enrollment at the institutions studied.


Absent more sweeping reforms to improve the overall quality of primary and secondary education, public school districts could do much to bolster students’ preparation to take college entrance exams.

With the introduction of universal testing, i.e. making an administration of the ACT or the SAT free of charge, more students from disadvantaged backgrounds take these exams. Expanding access to these exams may in turn change the “college-going culture” of a high school and promote interest in post-secondary attainment.

In Michigan and Maine, for instance, the use of universal testing contributed to increased rates of college attendance and graduation among low-income students.

The low-hanging fruit of universal testing should naturally be paired with more sweeping reforms to strengthen primary and secondary public education in the United States.

Given that the cost to eliminate tuition at institutions of higher education may be as high as $60 to $70 billion annually, it would be another “perverse redistribution of income and status” from the poor to the rich to prioritize the affordability of college over the quality of primary and secondary education.

Together, implementing universal testing in low-income high schools along with light-touch interventions to spread information about the benefits of a college education, the process of applying, and financing that education might do much more to promote social equity than the blanket approach of making college free for everyone.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.