Category Archives: free college

A Cynical Attack on Bernie Sanders

An article in the Daily Beast last Sunday, which sports the title Why Free College is Really Expensive by Dmitri Mehlhorn states an opinion shared by many media people, that free tuition at public colleges should not be a high priority idea for the 2016 election.

One problem with the free tuition plan, the article points out, is something we know is true in our American economic system which hates regulation and which immediately upon being subjected to any rule or regulation choses to believe that such “obstacles” to free trade simply offer opportunities to creatively work around these regulations. Just like trying to shove a down comfortable back into the plastic bag it came in, so neat and rectangular with the nice zipper, you find yourself stuffing a handful in on one side while it pops out another. We saw this with health insurance (and we continue to see it). Companies keep finding ways around attempts to control costs and, while Obama’s ACA may have contained costs for a while, we suspect the insurance industry is, even now, working on some ways to raise profits without disobeying the letter of the rules they signed onto when they agreed to the ACA in the first place. We often call this American ingenuity, but sometimes it just looks a lot like greed.

Dmitri Mehlhorn says that this is the same sort of thing we can expect to happen on college campuses. If tuition is free then costs for room and board and books and other fees will rise. Creative ways will be found to make sure that “free” higher education is not free.

“Additionally, directing that much guaranteed money into a system is a sure-fire way to accelerate cost inflation. The state may pick up the tab for tuition, but students will still have to pay for ancillary services (such as room, board, textbooks, etc.), and those services will go up in price. These costs are not trivial; for instance, although Sweden has abolished college tuition, students graduate with more debt than students in the United Kingdom, and only slightly less than students in the US. Through economic incompetence, Sanders’ proposal might hit the jackpot of reducing college quality while also increasing cost.”

Mr. Mehlhorn’s next negative point is that Bernie Sanders chose the worst, the least honest “get” from among the many progressive policies he could have championed. Poor people don’t go to the polls, they also do not stand to benefit from free tuition at public colleges, says Mehlhorn. Here he offers us two somewhat flawed reasons why Bernie Sanders makes a mistake deciding to lead with free college tuition (as if politics were a card game and Bernie picked the wrong trump card).

First of all, Mehlhorn tells us, that he has lost faith in Bernie Sanders as a candidate dedicated to equalizing opportunity. He feels Sanders chose this issue because the middle class stands to reap the real benefits here and that this was a choice dictated by political expediency.

The middle class votes, the middle class contributes to grassroots campaigns. So Bernie chose this issue to lead with for the same reason every other politician does, money and the ballot box. This view seems cynical in the extreme to me. Despite political realities that all candidates must heed, I still believe Bernie Sanders to be more genuine than Mehlhorn gives him credit for being.

“The bottom line is that if Sanders wanted to invest his political capital to create opportunity for those in need, college tuition is one of the last places he would have gone.

Within the world of education, Sanders’ proposed $70 billion would pay for top-quality preschool for millions of 3- and 4-year-old children who do not attend any preschool today. Such a program would deliver enormous returns to the children and the country, and would incidentally help with childcare for single-parent households.

High-quality early childhood education does have one major problem, however: the beneficiaries will not shape the 2016 presidential election. Families of college kids, meanwhile, will make a big difference. Folks with above-average income vote a lot more often; give more money to politicians; are over-represented among elites who influence editorial boards – and would get almost all of the financial benefit of Sanders’ college subsidy proposal.  

Presidents don’t get everything they want.  At most, they get their top priorities.  What matters in judging a President’s future plans is not their long list, but their short list.  Free college tuition was Sanders’ first spending proposal since he announced his presidency, and it’s where he wants to spend the money he’d raise from transactions taxes. 

Sadly, in this cycle we have seen presidential ambition drive many leaders to discard credibility they had spent decades building. In Sanders’ case, that was his credibility as an honest politician who would speak for those who can’t speak for themselves.”

The second flaw in Mehlhorn’s reasoning is his insistence that the poor cannot benefit from free tuition because they are not college ready. Based on the numbers of poor and nearly poor people who are being scammed by expensive online “rip-off” schools, which do offer real degrees but at sky high prices, the poor will do better in a marketplace that offers free tuition for public higher education.

As for the statement that the poor are not ready to succeed in college – this can be easily remedied with a well-planned college preparatory program. Campuses and cities have excellent programs already in place to use as models. When well-designed these programs offer students a very high success rate in college. The EOC’s in NYS are fine examples of programs that know how to do this.

There are some excellent points made by Mehlhorn that tell us that any free tuition plan needs to be carefully designed and must cover all the squishy ways that the clever will create to defy the cost limits. Just because a great thing is tricky to accomplish does not mean it should be scrapped.

For 24 years I helped underprepared, economically challenged students succeed in college and, after a few years of practice our student’s success rates were very high. I have friends who are still paying student loans when they should be getting their social security checks. The system should not work this way. We have seen college costs rise and rise, even at public schools and the system should not work this way.

I also, along with Dmitri Mehlhorn, suspect that we will not be inaugurating President Barney Sanders in 2017, but I don’t think he has tarnished his virtues by choosing free tuition as his starter issue. With so many Americans unemployed and underemployed training programs and college programs should be top priorities if we truly are dedicated to equalizing opportunity in America. The children of parents who attend college always reap rewards from their parent’s efforts.

By Nancy Brisson