At Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate, Pete Buttigieg pulled out one of his favorite arguments. In explaining his opposition to free universal college, the Democratic candidate likes to argue that it would be wholly unfair for U.S. taxpayers to shoulder the burden of paying for millionaires’ and billionaires’ kids to go to college.
“We've got to be making sure that we target our tax dollars where they will make the biggest difference,” Buttigieg said Tuesday. "And I don't think subsidizing the children of millionaires and billionaires to pay absolutely zero in tuition at public colleges is the best use of those scarce taxpayer dollars."
It’s a line Buttigieg loves—and one he has repeated consistently since he unveiled his alternative college affordability plan in November.
Here he is in a June debate:
“I just don’t believe it makes sense to ask working class families to subsidize even the children of billionaires. I think the children of the wealthiest Americans can pay at least a little bit of tuition.”
Here he is in a tweet on November 19:
“Instead of providing free college tuition for the children of millionaires and billionaires, I will open doors of opportunity for Americans who choose not to go to college with massive investments in apprenticeships, workforce training, and lifelong learning programs."
And in an ad on November 28:
“I believe we should move to make college affordable for everybody … There are some voices saying, ‘Well, that doesn’t count unless you go even further — unless it’s even free for the kids of millionaires.’ But I only want to make promises that we can keep.”
In another tweet on December 19:
“I'm not going to ask taxpayers to pay for the tuition of children of millionaires and billionaires because we should spend that money on working families.”
And one more tweet on December 26:
“I'm proposing we make public college tuition-free for 80% of Americans. Instead of spending your mom's tax dollars on tuition for the kids of billionaires, we should spend it on helping middle class and working families.”
The argument is slightly odd, considering the South Bend, Indiana, mayor’s plan cuts kids off from subsidies long before anyone could be called a millionaire—if their parents together bring in more than $150,000 a year, and only offers free public college to those making less than $100,000.
But nonetheless, it made me wonder: Are millionaires and billionaires ransacking the public college system? How many of the richest families in the country are actually sending their kids to public colleges in the first place?
To find out, I reached out to the UC school system, the most prestigious collection of public colleges in the country. If rich people were going to send their kids to a public school, they no doubt would want to weasel their way into the best of the best, no? And according to U.S. News & World Report, the UC system is that, featuring the two best public schools in the country, UCLA and UC Berkeley, as well as UC Santa Barbara (No. 7), UC Irvine (No. 9), UC San Diego (No. 10), UC Davis (No. 11), and UC Santa Cruz (No. 34).
To my surprise, the UC media relations team got back to me. They noted that the UC system does not “require students to report their family income to the University” and that rich people often don’t fill out Free Application for Federal Student Aid, because they’re rich. But then, they added this:
Recognizing the limitations on the data from those two sources, we estimate that there are about 800 students of UC’s 222,000 undergraduate students [who] have family incomes in the millions. Those students comprise approximately 0.03 percent of our undergraduates. (Editor's Note: If the figure is indeed 800 students out of 222,000, then the percentage would be 0.36 percent)
Our data does not allow us enough granularity, however, to estimate the number of families who earn billions.
Assuming all 800 of those kids are in-state residents paying $14,000 in tuition and fees, the state would have to find $11.2 million a year to make up for lost tution from the millionaires’ kids, or an average of $1.2 million per UC school. Assuming every single one of them was an out-of-state resident paying $43,800 a year—unlikely—the UC system would need to somehow find $35 million, or an average of $3.8 million per UC school.
That might sound like a huge amount of money. But it’s really not. For comparison, UC Berkeley’s football coach is set to earn a little over $3 million a year over the next half-decade, and UCLA’s football coach earns a little over $4 million. The schools’ overall annual budgets are $3 billion and $7.5 billion, respectively. Plus, the UC system is a vast and powerful school system, and it’s one of the most likely to have rich kids attending it.
So when you hear Buttigieg talk about the injustice of paying for the children of millionaires, think what you want. But remember this number: 0.36 percent. Likely at most.
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