Making college tuition free for everyone, some claim, would waste scarce tax dollars on rich households that don’t need them. Does that claim hold water?
Should average taxpayers be paying to send Donald Trump’s children to college? Hillary Clinton doesn’t think so. In last month’s Democratic presidential primary debate, she called the prospect of Trump’s kids getting free tuition the reason she opposes the Bernie Sanders proposal for tuition-free public colleges.
But other analysts see this play of the “Trump card” as a distortion of the real policy issues at stake — and an attack on the “universal benefits” principle so essential to building an egalitarian society.
For starters, these analysts point out, the kids of the really rich don’t go to public colleges. They go to elite private schools. Free tuition at public colleges would hold little interest for them.
The perhaps more important point: Making sure that no kid from an affluent family ever gets tuition benefits at a public college would require an elaborate “means-testing” bureaucracy, with eligibility rules, lots of paperwork, appeals processes, and the like.
The more rigorous the means testing, the greater the burden on applicants. In effect, as one advocate of universal benefits puts it, “denying government benefits to rich people just makes it that much harder for less than rich people to qualify.”
So must we choose between giving the affluent a free ride or burdening less-than-affluent families? No, analysts note, we have an alternative. To prevent any potential for a “free ride,” we simply tax the rich.
In an egalitarian society, basic government programs aim to benefit everyone, and everyone shares the burden for supporting those universal benefits. Truly sharing that burden requires progressive taxation, a higher tax rate on the rich than everyone else. With progressively graduated tax rates, everyone feels a comparable pinch.
So, yes, let Donald Trump’s kids go to a public university tax-free, if they so choose. But make sure that Trump pays his full and fair tax share.
Sam Pizzigati edits Too Much, the Institute for Policy Studies online monthly on excess and inequality. His latest book: The Rich Don’t Always Win: The Forgotten Triumph over Plutocracy that Created the American Middle Class, 1900-1970 (Seven Stories Press).