Some say tuition-free college would be regressive. Others say that’s not the point.

Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) $1.25 trillion college-affordability proposal to make two- and four-year public colleges tuition-free and cancel student loan debt has fueled a growing debate over the merits of free college. Among critics of free college, some have made the point that plans like Warren’s are not “progressive,” asserting that free college ultimately would enforce or exacerbate economic inequality by disproportionately benefitting relatively affluent families, who tend to spend more on tuition than the lowest-income students, who qualify for aid.

Economists Sandy Baum and Sarah Turner made this argument recently in The Washington Post, writing that “a national free-tuition plan would…leave many low- and moderate-income students struggling to complete the college degrees that many jobs now demand.”

While acknowledging that “these sorts of arguments aren’t wrong, exactly,” Jordan Weissmann recently spelled out a counterpoint in Slate. He says that critics are overlooking a crucial benefit of free college: establishing higher education as a right and building support for sustaining it. “The main point of abolishing tuition at all public colleges isn’t to directly help the neediest undergrads,” writes Weissmann. “It’s to rope middle- and upper-middle-class families into a broader social democratic project, one important piece of which is making sure that public colleges stay well-funded for everybody.”

Weissman adds that many experts do believe eliminating college tuition would benefit low-income students—by simplifying financial aid and counteracting the forces that drive up tuition and motivate predatory for-profit colleges.

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