Clinton, Sanders Debate College Plans

December 21, 2015

In Saturday night's debate, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the major candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination, offered different views on the problems facing public higher education and their plans to help students and families afford college. While both candidates favor a major infusion of federal funds to allow for free (in the Sanders plan) and debt-free (in the Clinton plan) public higher education, they emphasized their differences Saturday night. (Photo from Getty Images.)

On the issue of why tuition is going up, Sanders pointed to choices being made by colleges. "The cost of college education is escalating a lot faster than the cost of inflation. There are a lot of factors involved in that," Sanders said. "And that is that we have some colleges and universities that are spending a huge amount of money on fancy dormitories and on giant football stadiums. Maybe we should focus on quality education with well-paid faculty members …. And I understand in many universities a heck of a lot of vice presidents who earn a big salary."

Clinton said that, by far, the top reason for rising college costs at public colleges is that "states have been disinvesting in higher education …. So states over a period of decades have put their money elsewhere -- into prisons, into highways, into things other than higher education."

Sander won applause from the debate audience for his analysis. But the Associated Press Fact Check on the debate said that Clinton was more accurate, noting a recent study attributing 79 percent of the increase in public college tuition rates in recent years to declines in state support.

Sanders argued for free public higher education for everyone. "We should look at college today the way high school was looked at 60 years ago. All young people who have the ability should be able to get a college education," he said, again to applause.

Clinton drew attention, however, to the way her plan would not eliminate tuition for students from families with the ability to pay. "I don't believe in free tuition for everybody. I believe we should focus on middle-class families, working families and poor kids who have the ambition and the talent to go to college and get ahead," she said.

A Washington Post analysis of the debate cited that comment as significant. "Interesting that Clinton volunteers this. Just the latest example of her pretty clearly stating that she won’t be dragged too far left by this primary. She’s the favorite, and she’s comfortable enough not to try and match Sanders on free tuition," said the analysis.

A full transcript of the debate from the Post, including annotations on key points, may be found here.

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