Leftist think tank claims free college tuition would benefit the rich more than the poor

The Brookings Institute's report concludes that, under Bernie Sanders' free college tuition plan would disproportionately benefit the rich.

The rich would receive $3.3 billion more in value than those in the lower half of income distribution.

A report released last Thursday by the left-leaning Brookings Institute found that Bernie Sanders’ proposal for free college tuition would disproportionately benefit those in higher income brackets.

“Under the Sanders free college proposal, families from the top half of the income distribution would receive 24 percent more in dollar value from eliminating tuition than students from the lower half of the income distribution,” Matthew Chingos, the report’s author, writes in the executive summary.

“The non-tuition costs of attending college, including living expenses, are larger than the costs of tuition and fees for most students,” he explains, and “free college, which does not address these expenses, leaves families from the bottom half of the income distribution with nearly $18 billion in annual out-of-pocket college costs that would not be covered by existing federal, state, and institutional grant programs.”

Sanders’ proposal to provide free college tuition at public universities and colleges has come under fire from both sides of the political spectrum, with Hillary Clinton memorably arguing at one point that, “Donald Trump’s kids shouldn’t go to college for free.”

[NPR, Dem congressman criticize Sanders’ free college proposal]

The Brookings report examined whether or not eliminating tuition fees for students at public college would benefit students from certain income groups more than others, finding that while average tuition is fairly consistent at the community college level, the most expensive public, four-year institutions tend to attract students from higher income brackets.

“The upshot of all these facts is that dependent students from the most affluent 25 percent of families represent 11 percent of students at public colleges, but would receive 18 percent of the benefits if tuition were eliminated,” Chingos observes. “At the other end of the income distribution, bottom-quartile students make up 14 percent of public college students and would receive 16 percent of free tuition benefits.”

The real losers, according to his analysis, would be students whose parents can no longer claim them as dependents. Such “independent” students constitute half the overall enrollment at public colleges, but would receive just 33 percent of the benefits under Sanders’ plan.

In dollar terms, Chingos concludes that families in the top half of the income distribution scale with kids attending public colleges would receive $3.3 billion more in value than those in the lower half of income distribution, estimating that those in the top two quartiles would realize $16.8 billion in tuition savings, while those in the bottom quartiles would receive $13.5 billion in benefits.

“The estimated distribution of benefits under the Sanders plan does not appear to be very progressive, but Sanders supporters could make the argument that the benefits that would go to affluent families are a reasonable price to pay for free college for everyone, and may help shore up political support for such a program,” Chingos concludes. “They might also emphasize that Sanders has proposed a large tax increase targeted at higher-income families, and argue that affluent families would more than pay for the free college benefits they receive through higher taxes.”

[RELATED: Sanders says Clinton’s tuition-free college plan is too complicated]

Ultimately, however, he predicts that “the debate over free college is more likely to be resolved on political than on empirical grounds.”

Follow the author of this article on Twitter: @JoshEisen