The differences between the college financing plans offered by Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are important – both for their impact on the middle class, and for what they tell us about the candidates and their governing philosophies.
Elementary and high school education is correctly seen as the bridge to a better future for young people. It is offered to all, at no cost, because we understand that society does better when the individuals within it do better.
When we made elementary school and high school free in the 1800s, the United States was a largely agrarian nation. The benefits a high school diploma provided back then – higher income, career opportunity and the ability to fully participate in our democracy – often require a higher level of education in today’s world. Will we provide them in the same democratic and progressive way our forebears did?
We know that our current system is broken. It has left more than 41 million Americans owing more than $1.3 trillion in student debt. That burden is holding back an entire generation of Americans and is harming the economy as a whole.
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have had fundamentally different responses to this crisis. While those differences have been papered over by some in the media, as well as some progressive groups, they are real – and they are significant.
The Sanders plan provides tuition-free public higher education to every qualified student. The Clinton plan does not.
The Sanders plan treats higher education the same way we have treated other forms of education in the past: Every young person who studies hard and succeeds in school should be able to get the education they need. By contrast, the Clinton plan charges tuition to middle-class students, using an as-yet unspecified formula based on a family’s income.
The Clinton approach is unnecessarily complicated.
The Clinton plan is unnecessarily complicated and difficult to administer. It leaves a number of key questions open to manipulation by future politicians, such as: What are the thresholds for paying part of the tuition? What’s a reasonable percent of family income to pay into the program?
Compare that to the simplicity and safety of a program like Social Security, which is run at very low administrative cost. If you qualify for its benefits, you receive them. We don’t “means test” Social Security – and we shouldn’t. We shouldn’t do it for a public higher education, either.
The Clinton plan holds political risk.
The principles behind the Clinton plan seem closer to some of the Republican candidates’ ideas than they do to those of great Democratic presidents like Franklin D. Roosevelt. Candidate Chris Christie, for example, wants to cut Social Security benefits for Americans earning more than $80,000.
Another conservative group, the Concord Coalition, proposed that Social Security benefits be cut for any family whose annual income exceeds $40,000 per year – and that includes both Social Security benefits and the cash value of their Medicare protection!
That’s the problem with ideas like these. Once the door is open, there’s always the possibility that politicians will use them to shift costs to the middle class.
The Clinton plan also requires middle-class students to work as well as study, something their wealthier peers won’t be required to do.
The Clinton plan also forces students who receive financial aid to work 10 hours a week, in addition to keeping up with their coursework.
College is a time for study and achievement. It can also be competitive. Students who are forced to comply with Clinton’s 10-hour-per week work requirement – which is one-fourth of a full-time job – will carry a heavy burden of time and effort. Wealthy students won’t share that burden because their parents are paying full tuition.
"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,” says Clinton. But nothing is being “given.” Students must work hard and achieve academic success in order to be accepted to college. This seems like an oddly judgmental framing, especially if we believe that higher education and hard work are the doors to opportunity and improvement – for each individual student, and for society as a whole.
The Clinton plan doesn’t ask enough of the rich. It places a financial burden on the middle class instead.
It’s sometimes possible to make a burden on the middle class sound like a progressive idea. Christie ludicrously claimed that “the left are defending the rich,” for example, because progressives want to protect and expand Social Security benefits for everyone. (He didn’t mention the fact that progressives want “the rich” to pay their fair share in taxes to cover it.)
Clinton defends her college plan by saying that “I am not going to give free college education to wealthy kids.” And yet Social Security, Medicare, public elementary and high schools, the federal highway system, and a host of other programs are also available to all who qualify.
Just as with these programs, the progressive way to finance education is by asking the wealthy to pay their fair share. If you think they’re paying enough for what they’re getting – which is what Clinton’s remark implies – you don’t create a system of fees, which will be trivial in truly wealthy households but burdensome for the middle class. You ask the rich to contribute in an equitable way.
That’s what the Sanders plan does. It’s financed by a tax on Wall Street speculators, the same wealthy people the American people bailed out after they crashed the economy. (The tax should also decrease risky high-volume automated trading, which will help everyone.)
The Clinton plan is not a “no-debt” program.
While it has been described as a plan for eliminating student debt, the Clinton plan is highly unlikely to accomplish that goal. Middle-class families are struggling to make ends meet – a situation that already forced many to take on debt. Any plan that adds to their costs by charging for college tuition will inevitably force some cash-strapped families to take on additional debt.
The fact that it has been called a “no-debt” plan is highly misleading.
The Sanders plan is a mainstream, practical and smart proposal.
The Sanders plan, by contrast, lies squarely in the line of great initiatives like Social Security. And it’s not a new idea. The University of California offered free tuition to all in-state residents until the 1980s. The average tuition fee at a four-year public university in 1965 was only $243. Many of the best colleges, including the City University of New York, charged no tuition at all.
Germany eliminated tuition at public universities last year because they understood that their modest fees – roughly $1,300 per year – discouraged qualified students from going to college. Other countries are doing the same.
In the end, the difference between these two plans isn’t just financial. It also reflects different views of ourselves as a nation, and different attitudes toward the middle class and the young.
Richard Eskow, a senior fellow for the Campaign for America's Future, also works for the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. OurFuture.org will consider publishing articles by leading supporters of other presidential candidates on progressive policy issues.