The Devil Is in the Details

Hillary Clinton's and Bernie Sanders's higher education plans have very real and significant differences, argues Robert Samuels.

March 24, 2016
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There has been much attention paid to higher education in the current Democratic debates, but most people still do not know how Hillary Clinton’s and Bernie Sanders’s policies differ. This lack of information is important because the two candidates have very different proposals. Not only is Clinton talking about debt-free public higher education and not tuition-free education like Sanders, but Sanders is offering a much more comprehensive approach to fixing many higher education issues.

Besides proposing to eliminate tuition at public colleges and universities, Sanders is also focusing on reducing administrative costs, increasing full-time faculty and dedicating more funds for instruction. Like Clinton, he proposes reducing student debt through refinancing at lower interest rates, and he acknowledges that free tuition will only deal with part of the high costs of higher education.

As I argued in Why Public Higher Education Should Be Free, we can substantially reduce tuition costs and improve educational quality if colleges and universities are given an incentive to reduce administrative spending and other nonessential activities. The plan Sanders proposed in Congress calls for providing “an assurance that not later than five years after the date of enactment of this act, not less than 75 percent of instruction at public institutions of higher education in the state is provided by tenured or tenure-track faculty.” This use of federal funds to restore tenure represents one of the many policies that one does not find in Clinton’s proposal.

Sanders’s bill also calls for funding all expenses for low-income students and requiring states to maintain their support for public higher education by mandating “that public institutions of higher education in the state provide, for each student enrolled at the institution who receives for the maximum federal Pell Grant award … institutional student financial aid in an amount equal to 100 percent of the difference between (A) the cost of attendance at such institution … and (B) the sum of (i) the amount of the maximum federal Pell Grant award; and (ii) the student’s expected family contribution.” It also calls on states to “ensure that public institutions of higher education in the state not adopt policies to reduce enrollment.” The push here is to maintain state support for higher education while significantly increasing the federal contributions.

Sanders also wants to make sure that more money ends up in the classroom: “a state that receives a grant under this section shall use any remaining grant funds and matching funds required under this section to increase the quality of instruction and student support services by carrying out the following: A) Expanding academic course offerings to students. (B) Increasing the number and percentage of full-time instructional faculty. (C) Providing all faculty with professional supports to help students succeed, such as professional development opportunities, office space and shared governance in the institution. (D) Compensating part-time faculty for work done outside of the classroom relating to instruction, such as holding office hours. (E) Strengthening and ensuring all students have access to student support services such as academic advising, counseling and tutoring. (F) Any other additional activities that improve instructional quality and academic outcomes for students as approved by the secretary through a peer-review process.”

These policy proposals are far-reaching and focus on improving the quality of instruction and supporting the faculty members who work at colleges and universities. The plan not only aims to increase the number of tenured faculty but also looks to improve the pay and professional development of non-tenure-track faculty. It is a shame that most of the news media has not covered these aspects of Sanders’s plan.

In perhaps his most radical and needed proposal, Sanders pushes these institutions to return to their core missions: “A state that receives a grant under this section may not use grant funds or matching funds required under this section (A) for the construction of nonacademic facilities, such as student centers or stadiums; (B) for merit-based student financial aid; or (C) to pay the salaries or benefits of school administrators.” Sanders’s plan would thus decrease the cost of making public higher education free by decreasing the costs associated with administration, athletics and merit-based aid that goes mostly to the wealthiest students.

Sanders wants to pay for the increase in federal funding for higher education by a tax on financial transactions. At first glance, there appears to be little relationship between Wall Street and public colleges and universities. But if we look at the economic history of the last 30 years, we find that, each time a Wall Street crash occurs, tuition costs and student debt go up. The reason for that correlation is that market crashes cause decreases in state revenue, which in turn cause reductions in appropriations for higher education, which are then followed by increases in tuition and student debt. It is also important to stress that at the very moment the federal government was giving banks and financial institutions trillions of dollars of interest-free loans, it was making a profit off student debt.

Clinton’s plan on her website states that her proposal will “ensure no student has to borrow to pay for tuition, books or fees to attend a four-year public college in their state. Enable Americans with existing student loan debt to refinance at current rates. Hold colleges and universities accountable for controlling costs and making tuition affordable.” Instead of eliminating all tuition at public universities and colleges, she wants to make sure that no student has to go into debt, but that requires a family contribution. She also is calling for an increase in public support for private universities and colleges, especially historically black colleges and universities.

Some of the more troubling aspects of her plan are a push for high-quality online education and increasing tax cuts for higher education, which mainly serve upper-class and upper-middle-class families. Clinton also wants to penalize colleges and universities when their students do not graduate or cannot repay their loans. This policy is a conservative idea that has been promoted by President Obama and Hillary Clinton. Unlike Sanders, Clinton says nothing about increasing the number of tenure-track faculty, improving the compensation and development of non-tenure-track faculty, reducing administrative costs, or controlling the costs of noninstructional expenditures.

The devil is clearly in the details of these proposals, but few people appear to know what these details entail.


Robert Samuels is president of UC-AFT and teaches writing at the University of California at Santa Barbara.


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