Study: Dems' Free College for Everyone Benefits Only 14% of Americans


During the first few rounds of Democratic presidential debates, what you saw was basically a gaggle of people on stage talking about how they would give America free stuff, plus Marianne Williamson talking about how she would try to defeat dark psychic forces or whatever.

Now that we no longer have Beto and Bill de Blasio among us, what we’ll see in the next round of debates is a slightly smaller gaggle of people on stage talking about how they’re going to give America free stuff.

Alas, it seems, not much has changed. But, hey, at least the stuff they’re going to purchase with your taxpayer money will end up benefitting us, right?

Not exactly, if free college is any guide.

A new study by the National Bureau of Economic Research found that over 86 percent of American households would lose out if the free tuition plans touted by candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were put into effect.

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The paper found “that free- public-college policies, mandatory or subsidized, would decrease state expenditure on and hence the quality of public education.

While the study found that “[m]ore students would obtain college degrees due to increased enrollment,” researchers concluded that “[o]ver 86% of all households would lose while about 60% of the lowest income quintile would gain from such policies.”

This would be for the two most ambitious plans, from Sens. Sanders and Warren (as well as former HUD Secretary Julían Castro, if his campaign ever achieves escape velocity from 1 percent), which would make college free for all Americans, as the Washington Free Beacon pointed out.

Others have more modest plans which would still give college free to middle- and low-income families only, like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg or Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard.

Do you think college should be free?

Either way, there are two ways the study looked at that the federal government could go about implementing free college. In one, the government could force states to divert money for the sheepskin giveaway. In another, the government would subsidize the states and encourage them to implement the policy.

Either way leads to the same result: Less than 14 percent of households end up benefiting from the plan, all at the lowest quintile.

How would it hurt aside from higher taxes? The Free Beacon examined Warren’s plan, which would force the states to divert funds while the federal government would help subsidize it via a wealth tax on what she’s fond of calling “ultra-millionaires.”

“Warren’s plan would force state governments to withdraw resources from public K-12 education to fund the free college program, worsening the overall quality of education students receive before college,” Yuichiro Kakutani noted at the Free Beacon.

“The lower education quality, along with higher tax rates, would contribute to a decline in welfare for U.S. households, according to researchers.”

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“Other academics have found flaws in existing free college programs. A Harvard University study found that a Massachusetts tuition-free college program for high-performing students actually lowered the students’ college completion rate, complicating claims from 2020 Democrats that their education plans would allow more students to graduate.”

The NBER study also noted the same likely drop-off in the percentage of students completing degrees, from 62 percent to 58 percent, in public four-year schools; it found that the increased school intake would only lead to a slight uptick in the number of students completing a two- or four-year degree.

“The idea of ‘free’ public colleges is politically seductive. But of course a college education can’t actually be free — someone must pay for it,” the study read.

“Allocating additional resources to the college stage may be self-defeating if this entails a reduction of public expenditure in the earlier stages.”

But wait — wasn’t Elizabeth Warren’s plan supposed to only tax the super-rich?

That’s the problem with free college plans. It’s not just that there isn’t the kind of money to make them work, although we can start there. It’s the question of what actually constitutes the plan working.

Does it work if it erodes state education systems? That’s what the NBER study is saying Sanders’ and Warren’s plans will do. Does it work if most households don’t benefit? But it has the correct intentions, right? I mean, even if you never go to college or you’ve already attended, the people who are proposing this mean well.

No government plan should be judged solely by its intentions, especially one as expensive and pervasive as a college giveaway. Before the free stuff giveaway turns into a headlong dive headlong into something that amounts to single-payer for higher education, America needs to seriously examine what these candidates are proposing and what the end result of those proposals will be.

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C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014.
C. Douglas Golden is a writer who splits his time between the United States and Southeast Asia. Specializing in political commentary and world affairs, he's written for Conservative Tribune and The Western Journal since 2014. Aside from politics, he enjoys spending time with his wife, literature (especially British comic novels and modern Japanese lit), indie rock, coffee, Formula One and football (of both American and world varieties).
Morristown, New Jersey
Catholic University of America
Languages Spoken
English, Spanish
Topics of Expertise
American Politics, World Politics, Culture