Noah Smith of Bloomberg makes the case that free college wouldn’t help the very students intended to benefit from such programs.

Free College Would Help the Rich More Than the Poor

Free college sounds like a great idea, when you first hear the words. That might be why Bernie Sanders was able to whip up so much enthusiasm around the idea in his 2016 presidential bid, and is still campaigning for it to this day. For anyone who has had to pay sky-high tuition at a big-name university, or dealt with the crushing weight of student loans, those two magical words must seem like a rope being thrown down from heaven.

But the dream of free college is a mirage. While much needs to be done to fix the U.S.’s overpriced university system and deliver the bounties of higher education to more people, plans like Sanders’s — which would eliminate tuition at all public universities — are not the way to do it.

One problem, which many others have pointed out, is that free college would disproportionately benefit the wealthy and upper-middle class. An analysis by researcher Matthew Chingos for the Brookings Institution found that students from higher-income families tend to go to schools where tuition is higher, whereas students from more disadvantaged backgrounds tend to go to cheaper in-state schools and community colleges.

Of course, this might change if all public colleges were free, since high tuition is one of the reasons why so many kids from lower-income households don’t go to expensive schools. But there are reasons to think it wouldn’t. Prestigious colleges that spend a lot on renowned professors, fancy dormitories and the like would still have an incentive to admit lots of kids from rich families, because these kids are more likely to get rich themselves, and therefore to make large alumni donations. Tuition, after all, accounts for only about one-fifth of public university revenue. Also, rich kids tend to have better grades and test scores, so prestigious public universities will admit more of them in order to maintain their status.