...The main problem with free college is that most students come from disproportionately well-off backgrounds and already enjoy disproportionately well-off futures, which makes them relatively uncompelling targets for public transfers. At age nineteen, only around 20 percent of children from the poorest 2 percent of families in the country attend college. For the richest 2 percent of families, the same number is around 90 percent. In between these two extremes, college attendance rates climb practically straight up the income ladder: the richer your parents are, the greater the likelihood that you are in college at age nineteen. The relatively few poor kids who do attend college heavily cluster in two-year community colleges and cheaper, less selective four-year colleges, while richer kids are likely to attend more expensive four-year institutions. At public colleges (the type we’d likely make free), students from the poorest fourth of the population currently pay no net tuition at either two-year or four-year institutions, while also receiving an average of $3,080 and $2,320 respectively to offset some of their annual living expenses. Richer students currently receive much fewer tuition and living grant benefits.
Given these class-based differences in attendance levels, institutional selection, and current student benefit levels, making college free for everyone would almost certainly mean giving far more money to students from richer families than from poorer ones. Of course, providing more generous student benefits might alter these class-based skews a bit by encouraging more poor and middle-class people to go to college or to attend more expensive institutions. But even reasonably accounting for those kinds of responses, the primary result of such increased student benefit generosity would be to fill the pockets of richer students and their families.
Student benefit campaigners tend not to focus on these sorts of distributive questions, preferring instead to gesture towards a supposed student debt crisis to prove that those who attended college really are a hurting class needing higher benefits. While there are certain extreme cases of students with very high debts, and certain college sectors such as for-profits that are truly immiserating specific groups of students, the reality remains that college graduates are generally on track for much better financial outcomes than non-attendees. Even in the wake of the Great Recession, which hit young people harder than anyone else, those with bachelor’s degrees had median personal incomes $17,500 higher than young high school graduates. Just one year of this income premium would be enough to wipe out the median debt of a public four-year-college graduate, which currently stands slightly above $10,000.
I would have thought that the case that given the way standardized tests tend to filter based on socio-economic and even racial lines that someone might be able to make a case that even "if" college is free for everyone the entire testing regime will still be stacked against people who aren't more upper crusty anyway and that this could be a secondary effect not anticipated by relatively well-off white people who want free college because they haven't considered it as even being part of their white privilege. That wasn't actually sarcasm there, by the way. One of the more brilliant moves by South Park in sending up the social justice warrior element is that they're presented as uniformly white frat boy bros who are busy checking other peoples' privilege while basking in their own, namely college education.
Over at The Atlantic there's a piece raising doubts about whether the bachelor's degree should be the "necessary" step to a middle-class life. If there's another case to be made against free college that seems more compelling than even the case that free-college-for-all would exacerbate income inequality it's that there's no reason a college degree should be a prerequisite for "normal" economic life that's construed as "middle class".
It is because of this belief that general-education requirements are the center of the bachelor’s degree and are concentrated in the first two years of a four-year program. The general-education core is what distinguishes the B.A. from a vocational program and makes it more than “just training.” It is designed to ensure that all degree holders graduate with a breadth of knowledge in addition to an in-depth understanding of a particular subject area. Students are exposed to a broad range of disciplines and are pushed to think critically about the social, cultural, and historical context in which they live. It is supposed to guarantee that all graduates can write, have a basic understanding of the scientific method, have heard of the Marshall Plan and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and know that iambic pentameter has something to do with poetry.
While few would challenge the importance of general education, both to students and to a well-functioning democracy, there is good reason to question why it has to come at the beginning of a B.A.—and just how general and theoretical it needs to be. The pyramid structure of the bachelor’s degree, which requires that students start with the broad base of general requirements before they specialize, is what makes college unappealing to so many young people.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There is no iron law of learning dictating that students must master general theories or be fully versed in a particular historical or cultural context before learning how to do things. Some students will do well under this approach, but ...
Apparently the oft insufferable first two years of often time-wasting "general education" hasn't gone anywhere in the last twenty years. What made those general education courses seem so idiotic was that during high school I'd get told that I was getting a well-rounded general education to prepare for a career and/or college and then I got to college and was told the general education was a requirement. Wasn't college supposed to be for more specialized study, finally? Ah, yeah, just those last two years of the undergrad degree and then you do two MORE years for a master's. There was no room for actually using more than "maybe" half of those four years JUST studying the stuff you wanted to study. Not that I exactly regret going to college but sometimes it seems like American higher education has mutated into some gigantic con job. You can learn plenty if you're working with teachers who want to actually teach rather than secure tenure or play the status/honor game of scholastic prestige ... but in the last ten years or so I've advised younger friends to not bother with college unless they are certain they can't get a job in a career they're interested in without the formal credentials associated with a degree.