Over on the People’s View, there’s a post looking at Bernie Sanders “free college” plan. One can assume that it’s the same as a bill he proposed along those lines. The idea of “free college,” although it’s really only tuition free college, has caught on with number of people, particularly the younger generation of current (or soon to be) college students. It’s not a bad idea, except for the problems. As I said about the healthcare plan, it’s another “alligators in the swamp” problem. That is, it’s not that the general idea isn’t laudable, it’s the details where things get tricky. Matthew Yglesias over at Vox has a couple of articles about the problems, and reluctantly concludes that it’s unrealistic. In looking through the legislation, not only do I agree it’s unrealistic, it’s not going to be “sellable” even to “solid blue states.”
Yglesias points out two of the major problems:
Specifically, he is offering a 2-to-1 federal match for states that do this along with meeting a few other criteria like reducing reliance on adjunct faculty. This is a sufficiently attractive offer that some states would probably go for it. But it’s going to cost a lot of money, and tax-averse Republican governors like Walker pretty clearly aren’t going to do it.
The other is selectivity. Sanders’s plan does not truly deliver tuition-free college for the exact same reason that the Affordable Care Act does not truly deliver universal health care: path dependency and reliance on state government cooperation. If all 50 states had governments in place that wanted to achieve universal insurance coverage, then the Affordable Care Act creates a framework in which they could easily and affordably do so.
In other words, besides the federal outlay, the states will have to chip in a third of the cost and have to accept conditions on faculty and staffing. That’s impossible in Republican-held states, and given the battles in my (mostly) Democrat-held state over the state university budget, unlikely to be accepted even here. Quite a bit of that could possibly be worked out, but in every article I keep seeing the same phrase: “Tuition free.” That’s where I see another set of problems.
What problems? The first is that if you look at the cost of attendance at my state’s university system, you’ll notice something. That is, that tuition and associated fees (which are covered in Sanders’ act) only cover a third of the cost. In looking around at various other states, it’s virtually the same breakdown. But there are also “room, board, and books” that have to be paid, along with the cost of transportation to and from college, which are not covered by his federal grant program to the states. There are financial aid programs, like the Pell Grants, which will help, and there’s also this in his bill:
require that public institutions of higher 12 education in the State provide, for each student enrolled at the institution who receives for the maximum Federal Pell Grant award under subpart 1 of part A of title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (20 U.S.C. 1070a et seq.), institutional student financial aid in an amount equal to 100 percent of the difference between—
(A) the cost of attendance at such institution (as determined in accordance with section 21 472 of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (22 U.S.C. 1087ll)), and
So yes, it does mandate extra financial aid, but this means a much bigger outlay from the state will be required in addition to the required outlay for tuition. Even then, it only applies if you’re eligible for the maximum Pell grant, which a majority of the students in this state are not. That extra cost combined with the tuition costs will cause even the most liberal state governments to take a step back.
That’s what I meant at the beginning about it being an “alligators in the swamp” deal. The law as written, and what is being proposed by his campaign, sets forth requirements and costs that make it virtually impossible to sell to any state legislature. I doubt even Vermont would go for it, and that’s his state. The idea of “college for all” isn’t a bad one, in fact it isn’t even a new one. Even “tuition-free” isn’t a new or bad idea. But somehow, over the course of the campaign, this has morphed into a belief that it means “free college.” It never was that, and while the tuition would be free, the reality is that the majority of the cost of attending a state college isn’t the tuition. So even if the law were to be passed, students would still be on the hook for a big chunk of the bill. So that’s why “free college” isn’t going to be free, and if anyone thought that was what was promised, they were only fooling themselves.