It seems self-evident that eliminating tuition at public colleges for most families, as first Bernie Sanders and now Hillary Clinton has proposed, would increase access to higher education for low-income and minority students. It would reverse one of the key trends limiting opportunity for lower- and middle-income young people: a sustained shift of the cost of public higher education from taxpayers to students and their families.
But without the proper safeguards, such a program might still, paradoxically, narrow access. That’s because tuition-free public college could compound the increasing stratification of post-secondary education into a two-tier system that slots most low-income and minority students into the least selective institutions with the fewest resources and reserves admission to elite campuses mostly for kids from the upper middle-class and beyond.
If tuition is eliminated at public universities for families with income up to $125,000, as Clinton has proposed, more upper- middle-class students who now attend private schools may decide that Austin, Ann Arbor, or Berkeley are better bargains—and intensify competition for the limited slots available there. “What this will do is create a lot of people competing for spaces at public institutions and it will have a bumping effect,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. “For minorities and low-income students it will push them down the selectivity queue, toward open admission and two-year colleges.”