Beginning with the 1862 Morrill Act by which Congress set aside federal land for establishing “land-grant” colleges and later with the creation of new colleges for women and African-Americans, the right to an accessible and affordable college education was supported by the majority of American citizens. With the addition of the 1944 GI Bill which encouraged veterans to continue their education by giving them money for tuition and living expenses, the National Defense Education Act of 1958 which extended benefits such as graduate fellowships to women, the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965 which included a “Work-Study” program providing eligible students with campus jobs and its re-authorization in 1972 which added grants for low-income students there has been long bi-partisan support for higher education. As Andrew Delbanco notes in “Our Universities: The Outrageous Reality” what all “these strategies had in common one basic motive: to bring college within reach of those for whom it would be otherwise unattainable.”
All that began to change in the 1980s as states began to cut their investments in public colleges and universities. Those cuts not only continued but grew even more drastic over the next two decades. As cuts increased so did the cost of an education at a public college or university. Now, after decades of increasing costs and growing student debt and outrage, this year’s Democratic presidential candidates are proposing ways of returning to the days when college was more affordable and accessible. Let’s look at their plans.
Sanders says he’ll ensure free tuition for everyone attending a state college or university, expand work-study programs at private universities and cut interest rates on federal student loans to stop the government from profiting off lending to young people.
States under Sanders’s plan — at an estimated $70 billion per year — would have to put up $1 for every $2 the federal government ponies up, shifting more of the cost of public higher education to Washington D. C. To qualify for federal funding, states would need to maintain spending on their higher education systems, academic instruction and need-based financial aid. Sanders proposes spending about $700 billion over 10 years and says the feds will pay for 2/3, the states for 1/3 and that the federal money will come from “a tax on Wall Street.” Sounds good, right?
Clinton takes a different approach. She proposes spending about $350 billion over the next 1o years with funding coming from limiting certain tax expenditures for high-income taxpayers and through an incentive program that would provide money to states that guarantee “no-loan” tuition at four-year public universities and community colleges. States that enroll a high number of low- and middle-income students would receive more money, as would those that work with schools to reduce living expenses. She also plans to enable those with existing student loan debt to refinance at current rates. Sounds good as well.
Now, I could be selfish, say “hey I got mine,” and tout either plan as long it’s possible for those of us with with existing student loan debt to refinance at current rates. But as a student and faculty member of several state colleges and universities, I very much care about this issue. Although I began college in the Reagan era when states starting cutting their support for public colleges and universities, I still had what amounted to fee tuition at a California State University. I highlight that I went to California state university because tuition has everything to do with state funding. In order for tuition to be free, a state has to provide financial support for its colleges and universities. For much of its history California did that; New York did it as well. But here’s the thing, they no longer do so.
Which brings me to the problem I have with both candidates’ plans. Sanders says states will pay $1 for every $2 dollars the federal government provides. OK. How will he make states provide this money? We have this concept called “State’s rights” which ensures that certain rights and powers are held by individual US states rather than by the federal government. Education funding is one of those things that fall primarily to the states. No where does the U.S. Constitution mention education let alone funding for it. For the framers of our Constitution, education was a state and local concern, and most states include education among several rights guaranteed in their constitutions. That’s one of the reasons that what little I paid to attend a state university in California were called “fees”: the California state constitution included tuition free colleges and universities. So, for example, when I went to a California community college, I paid for my books and for parking which was $9 a semester at that time. The state constitution had to be changed for state colleges and universities to begin charging tuition. So back to my question: how does Sanders ensure states will provide the funding part of his free tuition plan rests upon? Does his political revolution include amending the US Constitution? Yeah, that will happen. No problem.
Now, while Clinton’s plan includes financial incentives for states to invest in their public colleges and universities, there’s no guarantee states will seek such incentives. The ACA offered subsidies for states to provide insurance exchanges, but many states, primarily those with Republican governors, said”No! We don’t care about our citizens and we don’t want that evil federally money.” So unless we rid the states of Republican governors, will Clinton’s incentives work?
On balance, I do think Clinton’s plan is more viable than Sanders. The federal-state partnerships Clinton proposes would account for more than half the cost of the plan, about $175 billion. Perhaps incentives will work. Also, unlike Sanders’ plan to create a completely free college education, Clinton’s plan would require families to make a “realistic” contribution toward tuition costs. (Note no where in the plan is it clear what’s considered realistic.) And, since states wouldn’t be able to use money from Pell Grants in designing their loan-free tuition programs, the federal grants for low- and middle-income students could still be used to help pay for living costs, such as room and board.
I fully support bring the costs of college down, and making higher education tuition-free would be wonderful. In a perfect world, we would return to the days when states supported their institutions of higher learning and worked with the federal government to ensure a college education was within reach of those who sought one. Perhaps I’m a pessimist, but as someone who has experienced the every increasing costs of tuition, housing, books and supplies I’m not sure either of these plans will help us reverse course.