“Free College” Isn’t Going To Be Free

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.



Filed under Politics

12 responses to ““Free College” Isn’t Going To Be Free

  1. Somehow, probably inertia, our educational framework hasn’t changed for years while the amount of information and/or knowledge has grown exponentially. I think there might be more promise in extending high school by a year or two so being a high school graduate means more to both a prospective employee and his or her employers. I think the “free tuition” than Sanders is touting is a fool’s errand for all the excellent reasons you cited.

    • Or use the money to upgrade and finance community college, which are easier for students to attend (more local community colleges than universities). The gen. ed. requirements of most universities could be covered and/or vocational education given. Many jobs do not need a 4 year degree at the beginning anyway, and it might make more sense for some to continue to a BA after they’ve had some experience and know better what they would like to do.

      • I have a relative who works for a community college in this state, and her particular job is helping those students adjust to college, and get them through the ‘remedial’ courses they end up having to take because it wasn’t covered or done well in high school.

        • That is a big problem. Kids whose backgrounds don’t include a history of college attendance and/or whose schools can’t prepare them enough may go to college but rapidly drop out. because they don’t actually have the skills they need immediately our because they feel so out of place social. Community colleges play an important part. Your relative is doing good, essential work.

          Our school district is working with a local university to somehow combine a fifth year of high school with a first year of college. They will help underwrite the cost, but the state per pupil expenditure will stay with them too. Our district is in deficit so any new programs have to be fully funded. There are lots of ways to cut college expenses – and colleges that used them would not get the government funding under Sanders’ plan.

      • sjterrid

        This is exactly what President Obama wanted congress to do. You can go to a community college or trade school free for the first two years free, if they meet certain conditions. Why isn’t Sanders pushing this in the Senate right now. Another example where the President proposes something, and even gets it written into law, and to Sanders is never good enough.

        Norbrook, another great post.

        • He probably doesn’t even know it’s happening. He apparently doesn’t know about Dodd-Frank breaking up AIG and, is it MetLife (?) right now. He wasn’t aware of the mechanism in Dodd-Frank, and that’s the issue he’s the most interested in.

  2. And those are only the biggest problems. You would think that after 25 years, he would have done some research on these issues and devised something a little (a lot) more thoughtful and well-reasoned. Even to my nonspecialist eye there are holes you could drive a truck through. Even a very well thought out plan developed by a candidate would have things that needed to be tweaked or things that looked good on paper but don’t work in reality or for unforeseen reasons that need to be changed, but this doesn’t even come close to that standard.

    And even if somehow it would be implemented as is, it would not achieve his goal of equality of access for all because middle class kids would be more likely to be able to afford the associated costs (housing, books, transportation). So especially in states that refused to adopt it, poorer students would be SOL in terms of government support and would have to work damn hard to be able to go to an out of state school.

    This is pathetic. After reading the interview he did with the NYDN editorial board I was absolutely shocked at the bumbling, garbled, repetitive responses (I didn’t see the debates – did he sound like this?) I questioned his proposals, not his basic knowledge of how government works. The interview made clear that he does NOT know how a significant portion of the government works, and that he has not given any further thought to or research into his policy stands since he formed them in college. It was appalling. “I don’t have the numbers” “i don’t know” “If I had some paper in front of me I could tell you…” He has done NO PREPARATION at all. When does he think he’ll have time to bone up on foreign policy, economic policy, etc., etc., as well as the basic workings of each branch of government between now and next January 21??? He couldn’t even bluff effectively. I almost think Bush jr. would have done a better job at least of joking his way through it. It really made me wonder about Sanders’ mental state.

  3. First of all, the “free college” much like “Obamacare” was a right wing creation. Bernie Sanders has always pushed it as tuition-free state college. But, as usual, weak-kneed centrist democrats (along with the mainstream media) adopt republican framing for pretty much every issue.

    More to the point: not only do you fail to offer up any policy prescriptions, much less demonstrate how Hillary’s plan for debt free college is any more realistic (especially looking at the fine print on debt forgiveness where the unpaid portion gets counted as income or the fact that she essentially structures it as a welfare program that will be characterized as the poor getting a free ride on the 1%’s dime), or provide any proof that Bernie will propose his college as-is and pass/fail (FYI Bernie has passed more amendments to legislation than any other senator during his time in the senate and has worked across the aisle to craft and pass signature legislation), but the whole argument is based on conjecture about what you think the voters will want. It fails to acknowledge that there is a generational divide in this country in terms of values and political will. Numerous polls support this regarding how people view socialism, taxes, wealth, etc. It also ignores the fact that getting the corrupting influence of money out of politics which is Bernie’s #1 priority. He openly acknowledges that he won’t be able to pass much of anything until we get a congress that is at least moderately interested in helping the middle class.

    But I think the real point (or at least effect) of this post is to perpetuate the narrative that Bernie Sanders and his supporters are all unrealistic ideologues. It’s standard fare as Hillary is a notoriously flawed candidate with convoluted, middle-of-the-road positions that are hard to get excited about. That’s no one’s fault but hers. No one made her to take tens of millions of dollars from the same industries she’s expected to regulate forcing her to resort to triangulation as opposed to principled positions (i.e. opposing marriage equality as late as 2013).

    The fact is, Bernie’s track record speaks counter to your argument. More importantly, Bernie himself says his positions are about the ultimate goal and that he knows he isn’t going to be able to get these things as he proposes them right away. There’s nothing wrong with stating exactly what you are fighting for before you negotiate. I know the current corporatist democrat model is to bake the republican compromises into your bill before you even propose it and call it prudence. I call it fighting with your face.

    I should add that I think Hillary will most likely win the primary. And if she does, I will vote for her in November in protest to whichever maniac the Republican party nominates (including Paul Ryan). Please don’t make that pill any tougher to swallow.

    • Technically, a great many of them on the internet these days are unrealistic ideologues, just as Bernie is. Sorry, the “free college” isn’t a right-wing meme, it’s what I hear all over the Internet from Bernie supporters, and most of them tend to think that he’s promising everything free, instead of just tuition, and only at state colleges. This policy plan of Bernie’s is completely unrealistic. This is just looking at a small part of his bill, not the other major holes in it (which are covered in the linked posts). For example, in order to get the funding the states must chip in 1/3’rd of the base cost, cannot cut costs, and must agree to a faculty hiring mix. Oh, and if they fail any given year, they lose it. Sorry, there is no state that’s going to accept it. This is what he’s running on and arguing for, and no, it’s not going to work. If you want to see Clinton’s plan compared to Bernie’s it’s a lot more realistic, and does apply to other colleges than just state colleges.

      • To be fair, there are aspects of Hillary’s education plan that I do like better than Bernie’s. Its more comprehensive. But I don’t like that after paying for 20 years, the unpaid portion of the loan gets counted as income that you have to pay taxes on. That sticks it to the little guy. And I don’t like that it’s structured as a welfare program that excludes people based on family income because it presumes that just because someone’s family has money, they’ll pay for the student’s education and as a matter of principle I find that unfair.

        But it seems to me that by “can’t do it” you really mean “don’t want to do it.” It’s not about how the numbers add up, it’s about whether we have the political will to make the investment in higher education so that we can remain competitive in a world where most developed nations already have “free” or low-cost college education. It’s about whether we have the courage to fight for it, even against long odds. Apparently you don’t. Or at least, you don’t find it expedient enough.

        And I admit I’ve had my run-ins with hardcore Bernie nutcases, too. But the hardcore Clinton fans are every bit as bad in my experience. They seem to believe that “ideologue” refers solely to where you are on the political spectrum. I say it refers to the rigidity of your beliefs. Hillary supporters are often as closed-minded as anyone. In place of the anger I hear in Bernie supporters, Clinton supporters drip with arrogance and condescension for their cold war politics and status quo paradigms. That may conform to the Overton Window but it’s still nothing more than staring at the dot at the end of your nose.

        I like Hillary personally. She’s obviously accomplished, smart, tough, highly capable, and about as qualified as any presidential candidate can be. And I don’t find her ideas to be terrible, just lukewarm from all the triangulation. Her fundamental flaw for me is that she has participated in, and profited, both personally and professionally, from a corrupt and undemocratic system. I know it’s frustrating because she’s not unique in this, but she also has no answer for it and never will because it’s true.

        The framing for discourse in this country needs to change. The system needs to change so that it actually works for all of us. Bernie Sanders is the only one of the two candidates I can trust to fight for that. If Hillary supporters want to characterize me as dreaming of rainbows and unicorns, I guess I can live with that. Far bigger dreams have been realized.

        • Here’s the thing that I said about Bernie’s program, that there’s a kernel of a good idea in there, but it’s wrapped with a lot of bad ideas. That’s the case with most of his platform programs. His program would require states to kick in 1/3’rd of the tuition cost, penalize them for cutting costs – in fact forbid them from doing so, mandates how many classes must be taught by tenured or tenure track faculty, mandates additional financial aid to students. Fail to do that, and you lose the federal funding that year. There is no state legislature that would accept those conditions. None, and I don’t care how liberal they are. Want to do or not, no legislature or governor is going to go out and say “Oh, we’re going to have to double your state taxes.” Besides only applying to state colleges, it also does not cover vocational training, and does use means testing in several areas. So parents are going to have to cough up money, most definitely so if they can afford it. Hillary’s plan is much more realistic, and while there are things that can improved, her plan is more likely to get implemented.

          Bernie has some good ideas, the problem is as I’ve said in the details, and the details matter. Here’s his other problem: He’s a one man band. He has done nothing to support down ticket candidates, and when asked about that (Maddow did it) he blew it off. Politics, like it or not, is a team sport, and he has done nothing to build a team that is going to enable him to do any of the things he says he’s going to fight for. So he can stand up there on stage making all sorts of pronouncements, wag his finger all he wants, and in the end, he’ll fail miserably.

          • dbtheonly

            I’m still unconvinced that a college education is the panacea it is proclaimed.
            We’ve discussed this before, what if the Wizard of Oz is right and college doesn’t make you smarter, it only gives you a diploma? What if the college diploma is only a weeding mechanism for hiring offices? Will we have more jobs, or merely find another way to cut down the applicants?