Joe Biden wants to make college free. Denmark shows that won’t be enough

The Matthew Effect: “To those who have more is given”
The Matthew Effect: “To those who have more is given”
Image: Brian Snyder / REUTERS
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President Joe Biden’s promise to make college free is well-reasoned. A strong welfare system that includes free tuition can alleviate income inequality and improve social mobility. Just look, for example, at Denmark. But this kind of welfare isn’t enough to improve educational outcomes from one generation to the next.

Just look, for example, at Denmark.

A new paper by James Heckman, a University of Chicago economist, and Rasmus Landersø, at Copenhagen’s Rockwool Foundation Research Unit, argues that despite the generous Danish welfare system, Denmark and the US fare just as poorly as each other when it comes to educational mobility. In both countries, the paper reveals, it is predominantly children from well-educated families who have enlarged the pool of college graduates over the last four or so decades. The correlation between Danish children’s GPA and their parents’ years of schooling remains sizeable and has, if anything, been increasing during the latest two decades.”

Family has a huge influence on education

Welfare mitigates income inequality through taxes and wealth transfers. But welfare’s influence over education-based outcomes is limited, Heckman and Landersø suggest, because taxes and transfers cannot easily overcome the effects of the family into which a child is born.

There are multiple reasons for this. Children absorb language skills early, and so tend to absorb these skills better from well-educated parents. “More advantaged families are better able to access, utilize, and influence universally available programs,” Heckman and Landersø write. Wealthier families also live in better neighborhoods, where the schools tend to attract better teachers. These early differences translate into a higher likelihood of applying to college as well as better outcomes from a university education.

The powerful influence of neighborhoods upon life outcomes is now well-recognized. The Harvard economist Raj Chetty, in particular, has studied this phenomenon extensively. In one paper, Chetty and his colleague Nathaniel Hendren found that “the outcomes of children whose families move to a better neighborhood—as measured by the outcomes of children already living there—improve linearly in proportion to the amount of time they spend growing up in that area, at a rate of approximately 4% per year of exposure.”

Heckman and Landersø call for more research into “how, when, and under which conditions families decide where to live, and how these decisions shape children’s lives.” One way to temper the effects of families and neighborhoods, they write, is through welfare and education strategies that explicitly target the children of low-income or low-education families. But these are, the paper observers wryly, “often rejected as politically unpalatable.” Paying for college doesn’t fully address the early gap that opens up between advantaged and disadvantaged families. After all, a government can only pay for students who make it as far as college to begin with, and free tuition cannot shape how a student fares in college or thereafter.