The false promise of "free college".

Author:Palmer, Iris
Position:Hillary Clinton's education plan
 
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HILLARY CLINTON WON'T BE ABLE TO BRING TUITION DOWN TO ZERO. BUT IF SHE'S WILLING TO BE RADICAL, SHE CAN MAKE COLLEGE AFFORDABLE FOR ALL.

In his unexpectedly strong campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Bernie Sanders won the loyalty of millions of young voters with a promise of "free college for all." Hillary Clinton campaigned on a more modest proposal to achieve "debt-free" college. But earlier this summer, to win Sanders's support after all but clinching the nomination, Clinton announced her own, similar plan for free in-state tuition at public colleges for families making up to $125,000 a year.

There is no denying the appeal of "free college," especially to Millennial voters facing sky-high tuition and crushing college debt burdens. As Sanders and other advocates for the idea note, when the country recognized a century ago that all Americans ought to have the opportunity to earn a high school degree in order to succeed in an industrializing economy, it created a system of free public high schools. Today, we are at a similar point regarding college: some post-high school credential--a bachelor's degree, or a two-year associate's degree, or even a one-year vocational certificate--is virtually a must-have for anyone aspiring to a middle-class life.

But sometimes, the simplest and most historically resonant idea isn't actually the best idea. Hillary's free college plan is, at least, a plan; so far, Donald Trump's higher education proposals haven't gone much beyond putting banks back in charge of student loans and defending fraud at Trump University. Unfortunately, the Clinton free college plan, like the Sanders plan it was built on, simply won't work in a federal system of government where states have made widely different investments in higher learning. And--counter-intuitively for a multibillion-dollar nationwide reform plan-- it isn't radical enough. What we need instead is to rebuild the state-federal higher education partnership from the ground up. Rather than making college free for some students, we need to make it affordable for all.

The first problem with Clinton's new plan is that states spend widely different amounts of money subsidizing college tuition. Higher education funding has also declined in many states, even as college spending has increased, causing schools to hike tuition to fill the gap. Clinton's plan would start by giving each state enough money to bring tuition down to zero for...

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