Christopher Loss: Will higher education be free?

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By Christopher P. Loss

Higher education will figure more than ever in the coming presidential battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. Once a political afterthought, higher education has become a major policy problem of great consequence in recent elections. This one will be no different.

The candidates have their choice of issues from which to choose, from state disinvestment and affordability to access and free speech. But the only one that’s going to matter come November will be Clinton’s vow to make public college free for families who earn less than $125,000 and Trump’s determined opposition to it.

The idea of “free college” is not new. In 1947 President Truman favored it. The recent discussion of it, however, was sparked by President Obama in 2015 when he proposed America’s College Promise—at $60 billion plan modeled on Tennessee’s free community college program of the same name. Late in his second term, Obama’s proposal flamed out in Congress but became a touchstone of Senator Bernie Sanders’ upstart presidential bid and, ultimately, part of the Democratic Party’s platform.

The “free college” issue will be central to both campaigns. Trump, who has yet to put forth a higher education platform, has the easier task. He will do what he can to portray Clinton’s plan as just another big ticket, big government giveaway that the country cannot possibly afford—a wasteful bailout for the under-performing, outmoded higher education sector. Among fiscal conservatives and the “poorly educated” whom Trump has actively courted, this will be all they need to hear.

For her part, Clinton will press hard on the Trump University debacle for as long as she can, though at some point she will have to make her case for government action in what would be a colossally complicated and hugely expensive undertaking. The specter of Clinton’s failed effort at healthcare reform in the 1990s also looms large. For years that failure was used by her opponents as exhibit A of big government run amuck.

In the aftermath, if not afterglow, of the Affordable Care Act, however, Clinton has been partially redeemed as a politician ahead of her time. Will the American people get behind Clinton on the free college issue? Is she a sage or just another political opportunist willing to say and do anything to win over the college-educated voters who abandoned her in the spring but that she needs in the fall? This is the question heading into November.

Which begs a series of other related questions: First, is the college cost crunch the big issue that Clinton and others in the media have made it out to be?

The answer to this question is a qualified yes: the cost of college is a daunting burden for many students, but especially for poor students. Yet it’s also true that there is an enormous amount of misinformation about the “real” cost of college, as William Bowen and Michael S. McPherson detail well in their new book, Lesson Plan: An Agenda for Change in American Higher Education (Princeton University Press, 2016). Using data from the College Board, they put college costs in perspective, noting that 61 percent of college students graduate with some debt and that the average debt per graduate is around $26,000. They dig deeper to make sense of exactly what it means, since 39 percent of indebted graduates owe less than $10,000 and another 28 percent owe between $10,000 and $25,000. Only four percent of students owe more than $100,000. These data may surprise readers who have relied on anecdotal news articles and misleading documentaries for their information; for Bowen and McPherson, these data suggest that the affordability problem might well be “overblown” and that there are bigger issues like college completion that need to be addressed.

For the sake of argument, let’s agree that rising tuition and fees and associated debt represents a problem of some magnitude. This leads to the second question: if Clinton is elected—and most prognosticators seem to think she will be—is the wholesale reconstruction of the federal-higher education student aid model politically feasible? I wouldn’t count on it. Although it is clear that we long ago entered an era where a college diploma is necessary for upward mobility and global competitiveness—when the social and economic benefits of education beyond high school are beyond doubt—a total overhaul the federal aid model seems farfetched. Not only are there real issues with the associated costs and administrative challenges of implementation, as Kevin Carey noted recently in the New York Times, the likelihood of continued Republican control of the House as well as the Senate would make it difficult if not impossible to pass such a law.

Where does this leave us? More than likely it leaves the higher education system in exactly the place that it is today, with students left to navigate the existing aid system in order to go to school.

LossChristopher P. Loss is associate professor of public policy and Higher Education and associate professor of history at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Between Citizens and State: The Politics of of American Higher Education in the 20th Century (Princeton University Press, 2012), which won the  2013 American Educational Research Association Outstanding Book Award.