Christopher Keelty is a writer and artist based outside New York City.

Pete Buttigieg has a talking point he returns to often, in explaining his opposition to proposals that college should be free: He thinks millionaires and billionaires, who can afford tuition, should have to pay for it. He thus supports only means-tested tuition support programs, which are complicated and prone to error–see, for instance, the calamitous failure that is the current student loan forgiveness program for nonprofit workers.

There’s a principle here that I think most of us can get behind: It feels wrong to give something free to millionaires and billionaires. But let’s look at the reality to see whether that principle is worth undermining a free tuition program that would benefit millions of individuals, and be a net positive for the country as a whole. Remember, public education is a common good. To paraphrase John Green, the whole nation benefits when we’re not surrounded by stupid people.

How much of a benefit is free college to billionaires, really? The most expensive college in the country, Harvey Mudd, currently costs $75,000 a year. For a four-year undergraduate degree, that’s $300,000. Holy crap, that’s a lot of money–more than three times the US average net worth of $97,300, just for a bachelor’s degree!

…except for a billionaire. For a billionaire, relative to the median American, that $300,000 is the equivalent of $29.19. The price of a single steak at a moderately upscale restaurant. For that small benefit, we’re going to blow up a program that would change the lives of millions of poor and middle-class students?

And that’s not even taking into account college philanthropy. I don’t have figures on this, nor do I care to spend the time to look it up at the moment, but it’s a safe assumption that a large percentage of billionaires and multi-millionaires are making large donations to the universities where their children would like to be accepted–many times larger than the cost of tuition and room and board. Nobody on the Democratic Primary stage is promising every student admission to the college of their choice, which means the rich would go right on making those donations, and a federal free tuition program would not actually benefit them in any meaningful way.

So it seems to me short-sighted, even if the principle is sound, to complicate and outright risk a program with massive public benefit, just to avoid billionaires dodging a tuition bill they’d barely notice anyway.

Oh, and of course bear in mind that millionaires and billionaires already get free K-12 education through public schools, like the rest of the country, and no one complains about that–but that’s because we’ve all grown up accepting that K-12 education is a public good that should not be inaccessible to anyone, while college is treated like a privilege for the elite.

That’s the true core question at the heart of this tuition debate, I think: Should college be available to everyone? Or only to those rich enough to pay tuition, or fortunate enough to secure scholarships?

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