Contrary to Robert Samuels’s argument in Inside Higher Ed on March 24, Bernie Sanders does not have it right when it comes to the question of increasing college opportunities. His attention-getting idea of making public colleges and universities free for all students would not be the best approach for students in the United States, even if it were a realistic possibility. And his ideas about the federal government dictating how colleges and universities should structure and finance their operations threaten the independence of these institutions.
Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders recognize that rapidly rising college tuition interferes with the ability of many students to access the postsecondary opportunities they need in order to develop the personal, intellectual and economic security to which they aspire. In a very different world, where America had a centralized system of higher education financed through higher and more progressive taxes than this nation imposes, tuition-free public colleges might well make sense. But that is not our reality.
As Clinton’s proposal for debt-free tuition recognizes, tuition revenues are a critical source of revenue for public higher education. Without these funds, colleges would almost certainly have to turn away some students and/or significantly reduce the quality of the education they offer. Clinton’s plan would use tuition revenues from students and families who can afford to pay to ensure that colleges can keep their doors open to qualified students, including those without the ability to pay.
Her argument that the taxpayers should not foot the bill for Donald Trump’s kids to go to college is shorthand for the perverse distributional impact of eliminating tuition. It may sound convincing to say that no one should have to pay because finances should not prevent people from getting a college education and because society as a whole benefits when more people have more (and better) education. But, in fact, individual students enjoy a significant portion of the benefits of their education -- usually in the form of a large earnings premium relative to people without a college education. Paying user fees -- another name for tuition -- for a service that brings such a large individual return is fair.
But it’s not just where college students end up that is the issue. It is where they come from.
The college-going rate for high school graduates from high-income families is more than 30 percentage points higher than the rate for those from low-income families.
Moreover, when they do go to college, students from lower-income families tend to go to community colleges and other institutions with lower levels of public funding, lower expenditures per student -- and lower tuition levels -- than the research universities where higher-income students are more concentrated. Students from more affluent backgrounds also stay in college for more years and earn higher-level degrees. More than twice as many from the highest-income families as from the lowest-income families persist to earn bachelor’s degrees.
In other words, free tuition would save students from affluent families a lot of money. It would save those from lower-income families and adults returning to college much less. This is the exact opposite of the strategies we need to accomplish the goal of reducing inequality.
Spending so much on subsidies to people who start out better off than average and end up, after their education, even more concentrated in the upper reaches of income distribution is not just a problem because it is skewed in the wrong direction. Even more serious is the likely increased strain on the resources available to provide high-quality educational experiences to the disadvantaged students who are so dependent on public higher education as a route to upward mobility.
Starving public institutions will make it more difficult for them to provide the support systems that low-income students need to achieve their goals. Depriving them of tuition as a source of revenue, when many of their students have significant capacity to pay both out of current resources and out of their future earnings, would diminish meaningful educational opportunities. Clinton’s focus on ensuring that students with financial need get all the support they require to cover their tuition at public colleges without having to borrow -- and maintain the use of their Pell Grants to help them cover living expenses -- is a much more progressive approach.
Unfortunately, equalizing opportunities in our society is much more complicated than reducing or eliminating tuition. Even though it is compulsory, free K-12 education has not come close to solving the problem of unequal educational opportunities. Students from low-income families attend underresourced schools, while affluent parents subsidize their children in a myriad of ways that supplement what they get in school. Inequality of outcomes continues to grow.
Similarly, free tuition in some countries around the world has not proved to be a silver bullet. Some countries with the highest levels of education among young people charge high tuition. Conversely, some countries that don’t charge tuition have relatively low attainment levels.
Hillary Clinton is right that eliminating college tuition is not the most promising route to a more equal society.
The Federal Role in Institutional Policies and Practices
Another contrast between the proposals of the two candidates concerns how to maintain and improve the quality of education that colleges and universities provide. Clinton advocates increasing accountability for the performance of public colleges and universities, holding them responsible for ensuring that their students actually benefit from the time, effort and money they invest in higher education. But Sanders, instead of addressing the effectiveness of colleges in meeting their educational goals, supposes that Congress has the wisdom to judge that every public college and university in the country needs to have at least 75 percent of its faculty tenured or on the tenure track.
Besides adding substantially to college costs, especially at the community colleges that serve the majority of low-income students and are already strapped for funds, this proposed regulation flies in the face of the longstanding principle that states -- and not the federal government -- carry primary responsibility for colleges and universities. And they have a history of successfully leaving most educational decisions to the campuses themselves. Sanders’s idea about changing the federal role in how colleges are run should raise real concerns in both the higher education community and state governments.
Clinton’s approach is built on the idea of a partnership. Students, parents, institutions, states and the federal government must all work together to build a strong higher education system for the nation. That takes a lot of resources -- more resources than we are currently devoting to the effort. Someone has to pay. And it is right that this should include the students who benefit and parents with available resources. The federal government also has a big role to play. But it should not attempt to run colleges and universities from a distance. It should instead support and facilitate higher-quality educational opportunities for all who can benefit.
College affordability, especially for students from low-income families, is an important issue. But it is at least as important to ensure that the colleges students attend are effective as that they are free or low in price. The focus on free diverts attention from the reality that low-income students tend to come to college with weak academic preparation and the resources available to give them quality education are expensive. Hillary Clinton’s plan will both make college more affordable and make it more worth paying for.
Sandy Baum is a higher education economist and a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. She has advised the Clinton campaign and this article reflects her personal opinions.
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