College affordability looms large on the campaign trail, with young voters and their parents increasingly frustrated with runaway tuition prices at a time when family incomes are essentially flat. The idea of free college is appealing for the simplicity and universality of the message in a day and age when economic success depends on education after high school. The free tuition plan was among the litany of ideas Clinton mentioned in her acceptance speech in Philadelphia.
But Clinton’s proposal still lacks many necessary specifics and suffers from some of the same problems that higher-education experts pointed out in Sanders’ plan months ago. The primary problem is that tuition costs at public colleges are mostly controlled by the states and are a direct result of how much money lawmakers dedicate to higher education. Any free tuition plan requires states to pitch in, and we know how well that has worked with Obamacare.
Beyond state sovereignty, there are three other substantial hurdles in getting any kind of free tuition plan through Congress:
1. It’s an uneven subsidy to states and students.
As Kevin Carey, director of the education program at the New America Foundation, wrote in The New York Times, “tuition isn’t the same everywhere. It varies greatly, largely based on how much states spend on making college affordable.” Average public college tuition varies by more than 3 to 1 among the states, according to Carey, from less than $5,000 in Wyoming to more than $15,000 in New Hampshire. The range of public investment is even larger, from $2,591 per student in New Hampshire to $14,412 in Alaska.
But it’s not only an uneven subsidy to states, but to individuals as well. The purchasing power of $125,000 differs greatly on the cost of living, and income caps are often not politically palatable. People who earn $130,000 and $150,000 vote, too, and they won’t be too happy to have to pay higher prices but not get anything additional in return from a college education.
In the 1990s, Georgia placed an income cap on its popular Hope Scholarship the first year, but by the third year dropped it altogether after political pressure from middle-income voters who also wanted to access free tuition at public colleges for any student who graduated high-school with a B average. The same political pressure will come to bear at the federal level under any free tuition plan.
2. It won’t control runaway tuition prices.
In 1987, U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett suggested that increases in federal financial aid enabled colleges and universities to raise their prices.
The so-called Bennett hypothesis has been tested over the years by scores of economists with conflicting results, but there is widespread agreement among most higher-education observers that the presence of a huge new federal subsidy will drive up prices unless strict controls are put on tuition increases. As Andrew Kelly of the American Enterprise Institute has written, capping tuition at zero “limits college spending to whatever the public is willing to invest. But it does not change the cost of college.”
Also, tuition is only one part of the revenue stream for colleges and universities. In recent years, public institutions that have been limited by their state legislatures in raising tuition have turned to charging “fees” to students in an effort to raise money. Student fees that cover everything from athletics to technology are hidden tuition increases that won’t be covered by any free tuition plan.
3. It doesn’t change the capacity of colleges and universities.
California public colleges enroll one of nine college students in the entire United States. But that doesn’t mean that every student who is qualified to get in to a California public college is admitted. During the most recent recession, the 23-campus California State University system, for instance, slashed enrollment by 16,000 students.
Because tuition just covers a portion of the cost of educating students at public colleges, it’s unlikely campuses in any state will suddenly expand their capacity to accommodate more students. And while public institutions educate about 80 percent of American students, the free-tuition plans are largely silent on what happens to the other 20 percent of students who go to private colleges.
In my nearly 20 years of covering higher education, I’ve seen plenty of good ideas die at the hands of lobbyists for private colleges. As the Chronicle of Higher Education pointed out recently, private institutions would be “first in line for harm” under any free tuition plan.
Free tuition sounds great as a campaign promise. But like any policy that sounds simple in a speech, there are plenty of unintended consequences to consider when it comes down to actually putting it into practice.