Thursday, September 24, 2015

What Hilary Clinton Gets Wrong about Free College

On Tuesday, Hillary Clinton sat down with the Des Moines Register editorial board to answer a few of their questions, and the DMR published a few excerpts from the interview.
One in particular caught my attention:
On rival Bernie Sanders' plan for free college tuition for all: "I am not going to give free college to wealthy kids. I'm not going to give free college to kids who don't work some hours to try to put their own effort into their education."
Let me unpack a few problematic things here. 
(1) Universal vs. Means-tested Goods: Bernie Sanders, by making tuition at public colleges/universities free, wants universal provision. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, wants to apply means-testing to it.

One of the main problems with means-testing is inefficiency. When you establish various criteria for eligibility, you create more paper work and more layers of administration. Universal provision simplifies the process.

More importantly, universality creates a broader political constituency and thus better protects a program in the long term. Universality helps get the middle class to fight for the interests of the poor. Social Security is a great example of this. Means-tested programs are deemed as only benefiting the poor and are thus more easily put on the chopping block. You shore up political support by locking in everyone's self-interest, not by depending on their sympathy.

And at a fundamental level, the concept of universal public goods is important for fostering a democratic ethos.

(2) Redistribution: Bernie Sanders's free college plan uses a financial transaction tax as its source of funding:
This legislation is offset by imposing a Wall Street speculation fee on investment houses, hedge funds, and other speculators of 0.5% on stock trades (50 cents for every $100 worth of stock), a 0.1% fee on bonds, and a 0.005% fee on derivatives.
You are changing the payment from a "fee" to a "tax," but the very rich will effectively still be paying for their own children. You could view this as taxing the rich to pay for their own well as everyone else. 

And their children may still go to private colleges and universities, as many currently do. And those won't be free. Bill and Hillary would still have had to pay for Chelsea's education at Stanford under this plan.

(Bernie Sanders's plan, NB, would offer help for students from working- and middle-class families at private colleges by way of lower student loan rates, expanded work study, and a simplified aid application process.)

(3) Defining Work: Hillary says that she doesn't want to give free tuition to students who "don't work some hours to try to put their own effort into their education." This, to me, implies that studying does not count as work. That research does not count as work. The intellectual work of being a student is a form of work, and students certainly have to put in more than just "some hours" for it. And this work should be the focus.

Expanding work opportunities for students is a good idea because there are many non-tuition costs to college (books, lodging, food, recreational expenses); however, they should be opportunities, not requirements. The insistence on a "work requirement" also evokes the welfare reform bill that Bill Clinton passed in the 1990s.

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