Hillary Clinton Lost, But Her “Free” College Idea Lives On

During last week’s hearings on President Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, Senator Bernie Sanders asked her, “Will you work with me and others to make public colleges and universities tuition-free through federal and state efforts?”

That, of course, was an idea that he and Hillary Clinton supported in last year’s presidential campaign—free tuition.

She replied that the idea was “interesting,” but quickly added this fact that so often eludes politicians: “Nothing in life is truly free—somebody is going to have to pay for it.”  Sanders acknowledged that, then went on to say that it “takes us to another issue.” (Video and text of the exchange is available here.)

Too bad that DeVos didn’t further enlighten Senator Sanders by pointing out that the federal government has no authority under the Constitution to make public colleges “free” or, for that matter, to control them in any way at all. Still, her answer made it clear that she doesn’t fall for the collectivistic notion that people shouldn’t have to pay for education.

But Senator Sanders did recognize that the states can pursue “free” college policies if they choose and two governors recently announced their intention to do so: Andrew Cuomo of New York and Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island.

On January 3, Governor Cuomo set forth a plan to make college at New York’s public institutions free, but only for individuals or families with annual incomes of less than $125,000.

In explaining the reason for his plan, Cuomo resorted to the conventional wisdom that a college education has become a necessity, declaring, “A college education is not a luxury—it is an absolute necessity for any chance at economic mobility, and with these first-in-the-nation Excelsior Scholarships, we’re providing the opportunity for New Yorkers to succeed, no matter what zip code they come from and without the anchor of student debt weighing them down.”

The governor’s rationale neglects two crucial facts—that many people do in fact enjoy “economic mobility” even though they never earned any college credentials and that many others are not enjoying much economic mobility despite having college degrees.

In short, college is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for success, but Governor Cuomo is eager to spend a lot of tax dollars (the program is estimated to cost about $163 million by 2019) to help more citizens obtain credentials at the state’s colleges and universities.

Bernie Sanders was present at Cuomo’s announcement and voiced his support. “If we are going to have an economy that creates jobs, we must have the best educated workforce in the world,” he stated. The senator’s mistake here is in thinking that “best educated” means “the most people holding college degrees” when what we should want is the optimally educated workforce, which we won’t get through government subsidies for particular government institutions of higher education.

In nearby Rhode Island, Governor Gina Raimondo stated on January 16 that she wants to make two years in the state’s community college system tuition-free for students pursuing associate degrees. And for students who enroll in either Rhode Island College or the University of Rhode Island, the third and fourth years would be free. Unlike the New York system, there is no income limit on the free tuition benefit, but students would have to maintain at least a 2.0 GPA to remain eligible.

Quoted here, Governor Raimondo explained, “When I was my children’s age, most jobs in Rhode Island required nothing more than a high school degree. But for all of our kids, that’s not the case anymore.” That’s the same logically-problematic rationale as Cuomo’s and Sanders’s: more years of formal education are now needed, so government must subsidize it more heavily.

One of the objections to these plans is that free tuition at public colleges and universities would obviously make it more difficult for the private schools in New York and Rhode Island to survive.

Private college associations hope to persuade state legislators to include their member schools in the new subsidy plans. Daniel Egan, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island told Inside Higher Ed that he supports Governor Raimondo’s interest in college affordability, but argues that she should seek to help students in all types of institutions.

Susan Scrimshaw, president of The Sage Colleges (three private colleges in Albany and Troy, NY) was quite pessimistic, telling the Albany Times-Union, “My guess is a lot of smaller, tuition-dependent private colleges won’t survive something like this. And then you’ll have made the public colleges bigger, the classes bigger. You’re probably going to have to spend more money on facilities.”

It is hard to see how free tuition at public colleges and universities wouldn’t lead to some downsizing at competing private institutions and perhaps, as Scrimshaw suggests, the closure of at least a few. State taxpayers and the legislators who represent them should think about the trade-off that these “free college” plans entail, namely a shift of students away from schools that had been operating on their own and toward schools that subsist on tax dollars.

They should be particularly worried about the possibility that “free tuition” plans will open the floodgates to spending that state higher education interest groups are clamoring for. Consider the statement issued by Barbara Bowen, president of the faculty union representing professors in the state colleges and universities: “Free college is only half of the solution. A progressive vision for New York’s middle class should include not just a college education, but a high-quality college education. Important as investing in college affordability is, it does not substitute for desperately needed investment in basic operating funds.”

The union sees this as an opportunity to get “full funding”—or at least more funding. Taxpayers should worry that it will mean diverting more scarce resources into dubious college spending.

But the greatest problem with these schemes and indeed all student subsidies is that they undermine the incentives to strive for education. That is, to get the most out of it because you are paying for it.

Jordan Morgan, a student at the University of West Florida, explained the point in this piece: “You work hard in college because it is important to you. You work hard because it isn’t free. If college were free, students would become nonchalant about their work and their grades. If all those credits were free, students wouldn’t worry about working hard for them because they can just get some more, right?”

There is evidence to support Morgan’s common sense observation that students try harder when they have paid for their education.

In a paper published in the American Sociological Review in 2013, Professor Laura Hamilton concluded, “Parental aid decreases student GPA, but it increases the odds of graduating…. Rather than strategically using resources in accordance with parental goals, or maximizing on their ability to avoid academic work, students are satisficing: they meet the criteria for adequacy on multiple fronts, rather than optimizing their chances for a particular outcome. As a result, students with parental funding often perform well enough to remain in school but dial down their academic efforts.”

It follows that if the money to pay for college is coming from a far more remote source than their family (i.e., the state), students will feel even more inclined to enjoy the college experience and coast by with the minimum of effort.

The most important investment in education is not the money spent on facilities, but the investment students feel in their education when they have a stake in it. Free tuition reduces if not entirely destroys the need for students to strive for the best possible results.

  • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

    My first response is to applaud the use of sociological analysis — great move! It will certainly broaden the basis for discussion.

    • piper60

      Higher Education-as it likes to call itself, isn’t interested in practical results for its victims/students. It cares a LOT about increasing pay.perks and prestige for ?administrators and their children in the form of offices, secretaries and the restoration of arbitrary and capricious authority!

  • Mitchell langbert

    You make good points. There is little evidence that students gain skills that have value in the marketplace. That’s especially true of the bottom half of the achievement distribution.

  • Lou Sander

    This article is spot on, in my mind. I attended Duke University from 1957-1961, graduating with a BSEE degree, and close to a 3.0 average. My parents could probably have sent me to Duke, but I had a Navy ROTC scholarship that paid for all academic expenses and included a $50 monthly stipend. I was a very smart kid who had gotten all A’s in a public high school. College work was a lot more difficult, especially for a lad who had never really learned to study. If memory serves, I was NOT a highly-motivated student, but I did enough to get by, and had mostly A’s and B’s, with a few D’s here and there. I was definitely NOT “driven to succeed”. I have a feeling that the fact that I was on scholarship had a lot to do with my relative lack of motivation. Sort of like today’s athletes on scholarship. Another factor was that I didn’t have to worry about finding a job after graduation, since I had a four-year obligation to the Navy.

    • piper60

      Which, in some people’s eyes, made you a vicious, war-mongering, war criminal!imperialist! Did you get any “hate looks”at graduation?

      • Lou Sander

        None whatsoever. “Hate looks” weren’t something that we even thought about in those days. If anybody ever gave one, he would have been marked as some kind of nut case.

  • DrOfnothing

    This is a classic example of the author’s common practices of 1.) making bold claims with little support beyond ideology and 2.) cherry-picking from the paltry evidence offered to support these claims. The Hamilton paper cited (but not linked, for obvious reasons, since it would undermine the author’s assertion), is much more ambiguous in its conclusion.

    Hamilton finds, for example, that GPA does go down, but graduation rates _increase_. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0003122412472680

    There is also a massive, and insupportable, interpretive leap here, which is that public funding would be treated by students in the same way that parental support is. The social dynamics of the two are vastly different. Given that the most likely model would be a combination of performance-dependant tuition payments and fully-subsidized loans, it is absurd to assert that this system would be treated by students in the same way that a monthly check from mommy and daddy is.

    Add to this the continued treatment of the disconnect between college education and social mobility as a an established fact, when it actually runs against the grain of the vast majority of studies, and you have an article that is speculation and opinion with no real basis in evidence. So much for taking the ideology out of educational policy!

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      Yes, third-tier in NY, but they are actually closing, not just losing students. Look at Dowling College, for example. Maybe, you could argue that rising public tuition and fees are making them the “new private” colleges, pushing third-tier schools off a fiscal cliff. On the other hand, there are those that claim Dowling was badly mismanaged (well, yeah — but in a rapidly changing competitive environment, there will always be losers. Except those backed by the government. Oops, sorry, I’m just talking to myself here.)

      Yes, college wage premium fades when cohorts are compared across generations. Brilliant methodology here –>
      A college graduate in 2013 earned roughly the same income as a high school graduate did in 1989. Yet student debt is blunting some of the premium a degree provides. Median assets declined faster for student borrowers with a degree (-71 percent), than those with only a high school diploma or less (-54 percent).

      • DrOfnothing

        It’s true, some private schools may close, whether through financial mismanagement or because they become unnecessary in an expanded and more affordable public system. But again, private colleges and universities almost invariably provide smaller classes, more personalised service, and better student support. Parents are often willing to pay a considerable premium for that, so I don’t think we can say with any certainty that we’d see mass closures across the sector. I don’t think Dowling is a model to look to–it was originally an extension campus of Adelphi, and only founded in 1968. Colleges created under such circumstances are losing almost from the day they open. In comparison, Canada’s most recently-opened public university, the University of Northern British Columbia (f. 1990), which was created and maintained to meet a crucial regional need and given proper public support, is thriving. It’s affordable, well-staffed, has excellent facilities, and was recently ranked #1 in the country among primarily undergraduate universities (read “small universities”).

        The YI report looks fascinating, and I will read it in more detail when I get the chance. One wishes that Schalin and others that purport to conduct “research” for the JMC would take a page out of the YI book, since the latter’s work is everything the former’s isn’t. The report you referenced is precise, well-organised, avoids ideological language or hyperbole and, most importantly, the methodology is rigorous and well supported with concrete evidence–112 citations for 22 pages of analysis.

        Schalin’s last piece of research, “Renewal in the University” was vague, largely ideological, used only andecdotes, and did not have a single citation in the entire 30 pages. Compared to the YI research piece, it read like an 8th-grader’s book report.

        It is worth noting their recommendation on p. 16, which runs counter to many of the positions expressed by the JMC.
        “States must reinvest in their higher education systems and provide debt-free pathways to a two- and four-year degree if we want the next generation of young adults to compete financially. “

        • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

          Yes. Regarding this last point, I wanted to mention George Breslauer’s chapter on “UC Berkeley’s Adaptations to the Crisis of Public Higher Education in the U.S.: Privatization? Commercialization? Or Hybridization?” in Berman and Paradeise (2016) because it attributes much of the slackening of state support to the Great Recession!

          This idea was new to me, and I cannot say if this finding can be generalized across other state education systems, but his argument is that the deficits in public support from the financial collapse have not yet been fully addressed.

          The book itself is aptly titled, “The University Under Pressure” and discusses the increasing hyper-competitiveness from a wide variety of perspectives, including the global perspective. I know that JMC’s mission is limited to NC, but when global macro-cultural and social trends are involved, we need to at least nod in that direction once in a while.

  • buzzcut

    I’m a SUNY graduate. When I went to school in the early ninetees, tuition was $3000 a year. This year it is $6700 a year which, adjusting for inflation, is about the same.

    The big difference though is fees. When I was going to school, they were just starting charging fees on top of inflation. I probably had a couple hundred dollars in fees.

    This year the school I went to has $3000 in fees on top of that $6700 in tuition. That’s a huge difference.

    Why isn’t there pressure put on colleges to lower their costs rather than paying for tuition?

    The vast majority of benefits to being an educated person go to the person being educated. It mostly accumulates in the form of higher personal compensation. Sure, some of that is captured in higher taxes paid, but not much. Why shouldn’t the person reaping most of the benefits pay most of the costs?

    • piper60

      That would be an empty suit seated behind a mahogany doesck in a nicely decorated office just beyond his Secretary Go-fer’s.

  • George Leef

    This comment was written by Bob Iosue, former president of York College and a Martin Center contributor. I post it with his permission.

    Good article on free college. A few points that need to be emphasized. You hinted at them but they have to be made in a more direct fashion. Sometime ago I mentioned in an article that high school graduations were a public slander for those not going to college. The ceremony usually would acknowledge the brightest students, then acknowledge the college bound students….even naming a prestigious college or two in order to amplify the quality of their teachers. Next came the athletes…all-stars and that sort of thing. More recent graduations have given a nod to those going in the military service. Also, more recent graduations have included in the college bound any student who is going to any technical school, even if only for a year or two. All of this is fine. But, in a book written many years ago (I lost it in one of my house moves) that was titled something like “The forgotten One Third”, the author points out that those students wanting to work with their hands were forgotten.

    Considered every president’s goal of putting people to work. They all require the manual labor of many more people than the college trained who design the work. New roads, new airports, etc. Who were going to be the workers if Obama ever was serious about his shovel ready program. Presently, we are having fiber buried throughout out NC neighborhood over the next few years. I am sure a few college graduates developed the whole program, but there are literally scores of people making a good living using equipment along with their muscle in preforming the heavy lifting. I talk to them often, and believe me they are not inclined to go to college. Add to this the brick layers, electricians, and the plumber I worked with yesterday in installing a new air switch….something new I learned of, yet he was a non-college guy who knew everything about it. All of which is to say, there are many worthwhile people who are not college material. It should not be a slur to say such a thing.

    The other unpopular point to be emphasized concerns the decline of the private college sector. Sure, some will close, and already have, as the public sector has grown. But the overwhelming number of surviving private colleges have had to lower their standards in order to survive. Because there still are a relatively small number of prosperous private colleges that get most of the press, the public thinks all colleges are as prosperous. Yet there are literally hundreds that accept almost anyone in order to fill the classroom and, if lucky, make the budget. The most clever people on any college campus are in the PR department; their work is to promote the image of a bygone era in the face of declining enrollments. While some people are not college material, colleges have revised their material to appeal to them nevertheless. What a sorry sight we have become, all in order to get more votes and remain in office!

    • Glen_S_McGhee_FHEAP

      During the Vietnam War, high school graduations were MORE THAN just a public slander for those not going to college — they were a public slaughter!

      Without that college deferment, you faced the draft and enemy fire. Some kids got married in haste, another draft deferment. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Selective_Service_System#1948_to_1969

  • piper60

    Think how much more time the Occupoopers would have to make nuisances of themselves! Besides, Liz Warren (Heap Big Chief Walking Eagle)has to run for re-election and a lot of young Liberal Fascist would be helpful!