Does the Brookings Institution have a problem with the issue of higher education reform?

A colleague asked me that after reading the email that we both received from the Center on Children and Families at Brookings with the subject line, “Sanders’ Free College Proposal Would Help the Rich More Than the Poor, New Brookings Research Finds.”

According to its latest Evidence Speaks Series report, Brookings contributor and Urban Institute Senior Fellow Matthew M. Chingos contends that Senator Bernie Sanders’s disproportionately benefit students from higher-income households and leave those at the opposite end of the economic spectrum with non-tuition-related expenses of potentially greater value.

Chingos’ argument hinges, in part, on the notion that students from higher-income households “tend to attend more expensive institutions.” What’s unclear is whether he means that students from affluent families typically attend more expensive in-state public colleges and universities, or out-of-state institutions, which typically charge higher prices to nonresidents. Given that disparity, one would think that the intent of the Sanders proposal is to promote in-state attendance, although that too is unclear.

Chingos also acknowledges that his study “does not consider the distributional implications of the revenue side of the free college proposals, such as Sanders’s proposed tax increase targeted at affluent families.” In other words, his analysis does not to take into account the offsetting financial impact of the higher taxes these same households would end up paying to fund the Sanders plan, which suggests a premeditated conclusion — and the reason for my colleague’s uncertainty.

The concept of free tuition for higher education isn’t novel. Germany, for example, put it into place on a national level a couple of years ago. But unlike the free-wheeling system in the U.S., admission standards at German schools are more rigorous, and students must cover their personal expenses. Many make that work by attending schools that are close to home and taking part-time jobs to pay the bills.

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Mitchell D. Weiss