To a certain kind of liberal, it's self-evident that the government should spend more money on universities. Cheap higher education for all has been a standard item on the left's wish list for decades. Since a degree is the only sure ticket to the middle class, the thinking goes, the government should do its best to make education accessible.
But is it possible that the left has gotten things upside down? Could it be that by more heavily subsidizing public colleges, we would inadvertently be taking state tax money from the poor and giving it to the rich? A few writers say that's the case. Our own Conor Friedersdorf called the idea of universal free college a "regressive scandal." Atlantic contributor Matt Bruenig has essentially argued the same.
This line of argument rests largely (though not entirely) on the idea that students who attend four-year state colleges skew wealthy. This sounds like a common sense point. Affluent children fare better in high school, are more likely to graduate, and usually have parents who themselves pursued higher education. And if we look at the population we typically think of as traditional college students (as Bruenig does in his analysis), it seems true enough. Just under a third of dependent college students—dependent meaning that their parents are technically expected to help pay for school—come from families earning more than $104,096 a year, putting them in the richest 20 percent of U.S. households. Barely more than a third come from the bottom half of all households.
So is that case closed? Is State U. overfull of upper-income kids? Well, not quite.