Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: it’s unfair that some people graduate with debt, and others don’t. The ones that do tend to have started off poorer to begin with. And so instead of being a means of social mobility, tuition ends up being a means of perpetuating it – the ones who start off poorer end up poorer. That’s bad, and that’s why we should have no tuition. Eliminate tuition and you eliminate inequality.
Let’s take this one-by-one.
First of all, eliminating tuition doesn’t eliminate debt. Sweden, famously, has both free tuition and significant debt.
Second of all, while the notion that the poor are the ones with debt is mostly true, it’s not entirely so. Some well-off kids borrow – usually in their fifth year when their parents’ income no longer counts against them in the need assessment process. And some poorer kids get through without loans by working and living at home.
But the most important of all is a point articulated by the American writer Matt Bruenig in this article: eliminating tuition does not, in any way, change inequality between rich and poor students. To a large degree, the kids who graduate without debt do so because their parents pay their bills. If you make tuition free, it reduces (but does not eliminate) the need to borrow; it also means that wealthier parents get to save their money. The gap between rich parents and poor parents is not made narrower: they are both saving the same amount of money. And the idea that the gap between graduates is made narrower depends entirely on the notion that rich parents will look at all that money they’re saving and not pass it on to their kids.
Does anyone really believe that? Does anyone really believe that if rich parents had more money they’d pass less of it on to their kids? No? Then your argument relating tuition to the perpetuation of inequality is wrong.
Bruenig makes the argument – correctly – that if you are going to base your tuition policy around the idea that it should serve to reduce inequality (something many sensible people would think is nuts), then the only way to do that is by charging sharply progressive fees. Ask the kids from poorer families to pay little or nothing, and ask the kids from wealthier families to pay more. And in practice the way you do that is by charging high fees and off-setting it with need-based grants.
Anything else fails the inequality-reduction test, simple as that.