Why Democrats Should Dump ‘Free College’

Free college is not so much a populist idea as an elitist one.

When congressional Democrats recently rolled out a new economic policy agenda aimed at staking out a new, populist-leaning course for the Democratic Party—dubbed “A Better Deal”—one idea was conspicuously missing: free college.

As the signature idea of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, whose populist presidential campaign nearly upended the Democratic primary in 2016, “free college” would seem a natural fit for Democrats’ first post-election platform—both as a hat tip to the millions of younger progressives energized by Sanders’s candidacy, and as a rallying point in the fight against inequality. Instead, “A Better Deal” called for what some liberals consider thin gruel: more apprenticeships and employer incentives to invest in workers’ skills.

The Nation’s Katrina vanden Heuvel, for example, argues the focus on skills “does nothing to address the fundamental unfairness that plagues the economy.” Others, such as Robert Borosage, are more blunt, attacking the emphasis on skills as a “charade” that is “clearly a nod to the still potent New Democrat forces in the party.”

But the Senate Democrats’ strategy is the right move. If Democrats want to win the broadest possible support both in 2018 and beyond, “free college” is not the way to do it. In fact, a Democratic insistence on free college would guarantee the party continues to talk past a significant group of voters who don’t believe that college is the best or only path to the middle class.

“Free college” might have its share of passionate adherents, but it hasn’t been broadly popular with voters. A 2016 Gallup poll, for example, found that less than half of Americans—or just 47 percent—supported the idea of tuition-free college. It’s especially unpopular among the white working class voters who flocked to Donald Trump and whom Democrats are now working hard to court.

One reason for this lack of enthusiasm might be the price tag. Even the skimpiest of benefits would be enormously expensive in the aggregate. Sanders, who recently reintroduced his “College for All” legislation, estimates the cost of his plan, to be paid for by a new “transactions tax” on stock trades, would be $47 billion a year (and that’s assuming states pick up one-third of the tab).

But there are other, deeper reasons why “free college” has failed to catch fire, particularly among the white working class. A sizeable share of voters don’t believe they would benefit from free college—or that the benefits would even flow their way. Many Americans also rightly believe that you don’t need a college degree to get a decent job, even in today’s globalized economy.

As opinion polls have well documented, Americans have increasingly lost faith in institutions, especially government and higher education. And this backlash has been the most severe among white working class Americans.

In a post-election poll by PRRI/The Atlantic, 54 percent of white working class Americans said getting a college education is “a risky gamble,” while just 44 percent said it’s “a smart investment.” Similarly, another survey by House Majority PAC this summer found that 57 percent of white working class voters said that “a college degree would result in more debt and little likelihood of landing a good paying job.”

Making college free would not erase these concerns. In fact, white working class voters specifically distrust the idea of “free college,” said Daniel Cox of PRRI, who was the lead researcher on the PPRI/Atlantic survey. “There was significant skepticism that those policies would actually work,” he said. “They didn’t trust that it would be truly free.”

Fueling this skepticism, said pollster Jill Normington of Normington Petts, which co-led led the research for House Majority PAC, is the belief that college is no ticket to opportunity today. In the House Majority PAC survey, a whopping 83 percent agreed that “a college degree was no longer any guarantee of success in America.”

“There was a lot of anecdotal evidence about people who knew kids who had gone to college but were living in their basement five years later because the jobs weren’t there,” said Normington. “They had all this anecdotal evidence that college was no guarantee of employment, let alone upward mobility.”

Attitudes like these are part and parcel of the “economic fatalism” that now characterizes the white working class, said PRRI’s Cox. “It’s part of the story that led them to support Trump,” Cox said. “It’s the belief that the system is fundamentally flawed and is rigged in such a way that no matter what they do there’s no way they can get ahead.”

The fact that so many Americans don’t think they would benefit from free college is one reason Democrats shouldn’t insist on the idea. A second reason is the risk of alienating the many Americans who don’t think college is for them—and have succeeded without it.

While people with four-year degrees do indeed command the highest wages in today’s economy, there are many so-called “middle skill” jobs—which require some specialized training but no four-year degree—that still pay good wages and are moreover difficult to outsource overseas. Electricians, for example, earned an average of $56,650 in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and as much as $90,420. Welding, which also requires training but no college degree, pays an average of $42,450 and as much as $62,100.

But by insisting on college as the ideal path upward, “you’re essentially telling people they have the wrong dream,” said pollster Pete Brodnitz of Expedition Strategies, which co-led the research for House Majority PAC. “The reason [some people] are not going to college is not just that they can’t afford it but because they don’t want it. A lot of people want jobs that involve trades or skills, not a liberal arts education.”

Normington and Brodnitz said the voters they interviewed were not only familiar with, but supportive of the idea of apprenticeships—the approach adopted in the Democrats’ “A Better Deal” agenda. “People in this segment knew of apprenticeships because for a lot of these people this is what they do,” said Normington.

Without doubt, the advocates of free college are motivated by the best of populist impulses—money shouldn’t shut the doors of mobility to anyone, and the evidence validating the worth of a degree is beyond dispute.

But free college, ironically enough, is not so much a populist idea as an elitist one. It implies that the best—or only—path to success is through the doors of a four-year university. And it doesn’t help that some of the loudest champions of this idea are graduates of the nation’s most selective schools. Rather than sparking aspiration, the result might be a worsening of the divide between “coastal elites” and the white working class, which conservatives are only too happy to exploit.

The best path to opportunity for the most Americans—and the path to political opportunity for Democrats—is one that leads to more doors than just college. On the question of education, jobs and opportunity, “A Better Deal” is the right one.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is Senior Writer at the Washington Monthly.