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Even Rich Kids Need Free College
It's not their money. Its their parents' money.
Rich kids are the worst. They play lacrosse. They get private yoga instruction. For all we know, they may even have horses. Their parents bribe school officials to get them into prestigious universities, and once they’re there they just want to party and get drunk. They’re irresponsible and frivolous and have never worked a day in their lives. What’s to like?
That’s the implicit message of Democratic presidential candidates Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, who have determined it’s a safe political bet to kick rich kids when they’re up.
At the November Democratic debate, Sen. Klobuchar (D-Minn.) criticized plans for universal tuition-free college from Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) by arguing that we should not send “rich kids to college for free.”
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg made a similar point on Twitter, promising that as president he would invest in workforce training rather than “providing free college tuition for the children of millionaires and billionaires.” Why give money to lazy, entitled rich kids eating pickled young fennel on their yachts when you could give it to a virtuous child of the working class instead?
On the surface, Klobuchar and Buttigieg have a compelling argument. As education analyst Preston Cooper points out at Forbes, paying for rich kids to go to college for free at public universities requires a substantial investment.
Kids from less affluent families get financial aid already; 55 percent of students from families with incomes under $35,000 receive aid and loans which pay for their entire tuition. Children from wealthier families, on the other hand, are likely to pay full price for school under the current system.
Letting rich kids continue to pay would definitely result in a less expensive program. However, there are other costs.
Some writers have observed that when affluent folks also use the same public services as the less affluent, they tend to ensure those services are well-funded and well-maintained. Getting affluent parents to buy in to free college boosts the program’s stability and strength.
Another problem with Klobuchar’s and Buttigieg’s plans: even most rich kids don’t actually have the funds to go to school. In fact, rich kids, like poor kids, generally have no money at all.
Kids in wealthy families obviously have more luxuries, and more opportunities, and more designer clothes, than kids in poor families. But they did not purchase them. Kids live in houses owned by their parents; they eat food provided by their parents. If they have spending money, it comes almost entirely from their parents. Money for college comes from parents too.
Over the last 10 years, private college costs have risen by 26 percent, while state budget cuts have pushed public school tuition and fees up by a whopping 35 percent. During the 2018–2019 school year, average in-state tuition costs at public university was $10,230; when you add room and board and other fees the total cost averages $21,370.
Whether their parents are high-powered lawyers or out of work, most young people are not in a position to pay that themselves. Rising college costs give parents control over their children’s lives for longer and longer. That creates an opportunity for abuse.
Ideally, rich parents and poor parents alike want to help their kids pursue their dreams. They will contribute what they can pay for a college education, with financial aid taking care of the rest. But there’s no guarantee of parental goodwill. That can put children in an extremely difficult position.
Financial aid is based on family income. Colleges look at a 20 year old with a minimum wage job and they see the child of a family with substantially more money than that. If both parents, or one parent, refuses to pay, the 20 year old won’t be able to get enough loans or aid to attend school.
Parents have a lot of leverage. They can, and often do, threaten to withdraw tuition funding if their children major in arts or the humanities. They can push kids into supposedly more serious vocational fields, or veto courses that they consider out of line with their own politics. Matthew Gabriele, head of the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech, told me back in 2018 that he regularly talks to students who want to major in his department, but can’t because their parents won’t let them.
Once parents do this, college is pretty much off the table. Kids can’t just get students loans on their own. In the eyes of the state, if kids are under 24, their parents should be paying for school. Kids can, very rarely, be declared independent and take out loans on their own, but it’s a difficult process. Children in families where the parents are estranged may find it especially hard to get enough money for school, even if one or both parents are affluent.
For LGBT youth, the situation is often even worse. A 2017 University of Chicago study found that LGBT youth had an 120 percent higher risk of reporting homelessness than their non-LGBT peers. A family that kicks an LGBT kid out of the house isn’t likely to pay for them to go to college either.
In 2018, NBC News reported that a gay Florida teen valedictorian who got into Georgetown had to crowdfund to pay tuition because his family refused to contribute. He raised the money. But there are undoubtedly many more who aren’t featured in national news and don’t get the money they need.
Free college for everyone solves a lot of these problems.
Buttigieg and Klobuchar worry about the cost. But there are plenty of ways to make affluent adults, rather than affluent parents specifically, foot the bill. Warren suggests funding free public school tuition with a wealth tax on Americans with more than $50 million in assets. Sanders proposes a Wall Street transaction tax.
Rather than giving free college only to the poor, these proposals give free college to everyone, and then tax those who can afford to pay in order to pay for it.
The Sanders and Warren plans are designed to address inequality by taking money from the wealthy to fund training and opportunity for the less wealthy. But their proposals also redistribute power from parents to children. If kids didn’t have to pay exorbitant college costs, they wouldn’t have to beg their parents for funds, with all the obligations and unwanted pressures that come with that. They wouldn’t have to negotiate with parents about pursuing wherever their parents’ passions and talents happen to be. LGBT kids wouldn’t have to hide their sexuality from their parents.
The very idea of rich kids makes people angry in part because those kids with money and power seem almost presumptuous. Kids are supposed to be weak and deferential. It’s easy to make rich kids the enemy, even as we rush to praise Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Donald Trump, and other adults who supposedly, somehow, deserve the entirety of their massive windfalls.
The truth, though, is that wealthy adults rarely deserve our reverence, while even rich teens are vulnerable. Klobuchar and Buttigieg are wrong; Warren and Sanders are right. We should tax adults who have money, not young people, who don’t.
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