Bernie Sanders’ proposal to provide free tuition at public colleges to all students looks like a Colorado pipe dream even if he were to beat the odds and win the nomination and presidency.
Still, the Sanders plan helps explain his popularity with young voters, many of whom are struggling with student debt, and without doubt he has brought the issue of the enormous cost of higher education in the U.S. to the fore.
But a new analysis of Sanders’ proposal finds that Hillary Clinton’s criticism that it would actually benefit higher-income students the most is on target. That makes the plan antithetical to one of the major tenets of the Sanders campaign: reducing income inequality.
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The analysis by Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, argues that Sanders’ proposal leaves students to cover living expenses, which for many can cost more than tuition and fees.
“Free college, which does not address the non-tuition costs of attending college, also leaves families from the bottom half of the income distribution with $17.8 billion in annual out-of-pocket college costs that would not be covered by existing federal, state, and institutional grant programs.,” Chingos writes. “Devoting new spending to eliminating tuition for all students involves an implicit tradeoff with investing the same funds in targeted grant aid that would cover more of the total costs of attendance for students from less well-off families.”
Warren Gunnels, policy director of the Sanders campaign, calls the report “misleading and deeply flawed.” He says that low income students could use federal, state, and college financial aid to cover room and board, books, and living expenses.
Chingos argues that higher-income students would receive 24 percent more in dollar value from eliminating tuition than poorer students, since higher-income students tend to attend more expensive colleges and tend to go to school for four years rather than two.
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Chingos defines higher income students as those with families earning more than $62,500. However, Gunnels points out that the analysis finds that 70 percent of Sanders’ college plan would benefit those making less than $106,000.
Gunnels also believes that Chingos erred in ignoring the benefits of free tuition to for students over age 24, who comprise more than 30 percent of college students and tend to come from lower income families. “This report also fails to take into account the fact that the Sanders plan is paid for by a tax on Wall Street speculation, which will primarily impact the wealthy.”