One key debate in the Democratic primary is the question of free public higher education. While Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have proposed free public college for all, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg has supported the idea for families making less than $150,000, and former Vice President Joe Biden has positioned himself as a centrist who rejects these plans and instead adopts the Obama approach of free community college.
What makes this stand particularly strange is that Biden used to support free higher education before he opposed it. Back in 2015, Biden declared: “We need to commit to 16 years of free public education for all our children.” Now, Biden opposes his own plan.
There is no good reason for Biden’s flip-flop. Recent research has exposed some of the flaws of Biden’s new approach. A study by the Brookings Institution found that free community college increases the number of two-year degrees but actually reduces the completion of bachelor’s degrees, while free public college is the most likely way to increase four-year college graduates overall.
Biden’s Attack on Professors
Biden has a problem with professors. That may seem strange for a man married to a college professor, who is himself a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and before that, spent 17 years as an adjunct law professor. There are few presidential candidates in recent history with a stronger personal link to higher education than Biden.
Yet, Biden has blamed professors for the high price of higher education, which may help explain why he grew to oppose free higher education. In 2012, Biden spoke at a Pennsylvania high school and responded to a question about rising college tuition rates. He said the cause in part was that “salaries for college professors have escalated significantly.” Biden even repeated the claim later that year, saying, “They should be good, but they have escalated significantly.”
No, they have not escalated significantly. The opposite is true. Public college professors have experienced some of the worst salary declines of any educated profession in recent decades. Accounting for inflation, from 1970 to 2017, the average salary of full-time professors at public colleges grew only 1.6 percent over 47 years.
If you factor in the massive growth of part-time faculty, the typical professor makes less than they did a half-century ago — and substantially less at public colleges. Among college instructors, part-time faculty were 24 percent of the academic labor force in 1975, but grew to 40 percent by 2015. So even if salaries for full-time professors had skyrocketed — and they haven’t — the typical college teacher would still be suffering in their wages.
Biden’s error was particularly shocking because his wife, Jill, is the only Second Lady to work in a salaried position while her husband was in office, making an average of $83,000 a year as an English professor at Northern Virginia Community College, after many years of being a low-paid adjunct.
Biden Blames Financial Aid for College Tuition Hikes
As vice president, Biden showed a shocking lack of understanding about the forces affecting college tuition. Biden indicated in 2012 that he might agree with those who claim federal financial aid was partly responsible for increasing tuition, and even hinted at some radical action in response: “There’s even discussion saying that if you continue to escalate tuition beyond inflation, then we are not going to allow students to attend your universities based upon Pell Grants and/or on college assistance that they get. We’re not there yet, that’s pretty draconian, but that’s the extremes people are talking about.” The fact that Biden would even entertain such an extreme and misguided approach to college tuition indicates how flawed his approach to college affordability is.
Biden also asserted in 2012 that the structure of higher education tuition benefits both the very wealthy and “the very poor, because they don’t have to pay anything if they get there.” In reality, wealthy students are more likely than the very poor to get private scholarships, and most poor students attend poorer public colleges where it’s rare to receive a full scholarship, while the declining value of Pell Grants and inadequate state funding make college harder to afford. Biden’s deeply mistaken belief that the very poor don’t “pay anything” for college seems to guide his limited support for more federal higher education funding.
Biden Becomes a Celebrity Professor
There was a small piece of truth in Biden’s big lie in 2012 about what professors are paid, when he explained that there is “a lot of competition for the finest professors. They all want the Nobel laureates.” Celebrity professors (such as Nobel winners and former vice presidents) are highly sought after by colleges for their status, and are indeed highly paid even if they don’t do any work. But that points to an element of hypocrisy for Biden: He’s become one of those celebrity professors who don’t teach any classes that he blames for higher tuition.
For 17 years, Biden regularly taught a Saturday class as an adjunct law professor at Widener University, making about $10,000 per course. In 2003, Biden wanted to quit because he was too busy with his Senate duties, but Widener convinced him to co-teach the Saturday class with Professor Robert Hayman, while continuing to pay the same salary to Biden. From 2003 to 2008, Biden was team-teaching the class with Hayman, showing up for at least half of the class sessions, while Hayman ran the class and proposed the grades for the students with Biden’s approval.
In 2008, Biden was announced as Barack Obama’s choice for vice president when his class was just starting, so he was reportedly unable to attend more than one class session before the election. Hayden told Truthout in an email that he and Biden “co-taught two classes after the election.” Yet Biden’s tax returns for 2008 indicate that he was paid his full salary for a class he mostly skipped. No wonder Biden thinks professors are overpaid.
Being paid over $10,000 for showing up to three class sessions was a bargain compared to how Biden has recently used his celebrity status to make big bucks in higher education. In 2017, Biden was named as the Benjamin Franklin Presidential Practice Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, which also created the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement in Washington, D.C. Biden taught no classes, and according to his spokesperson, only spent one day a week at the D.C. Center.
Biden was so rarely seen at the university in Philadelphia that “Joe Biden visited campus on Tuesday” was an actual headline in the student newspaper last year. So far, Biden and the University of Pennsylvania have refused to reveal how much he and his close advisors working at the center are paid.
Biden also has entered the high-priced world of celebrity speakers at college campuses. He was paid $190,000 for an October 2018 speech at the University of Buffalo, plus $10,000 in travel expenses, a teleprompter and a “VIP hotel suite.” There are some adjuncts who teach an entire course for just 1 percent of what Biden makes talking for half an hour with a 45-minute Q&A.
But Biden is sensitive about the appearance of speaking for large fees. At the University of Utah in December 2018, Biden refused his $100,000 speaking fee after finding out the money would come from state funds, although the university still had to charter a private plane for Biden and buy 1,000 copies of his book. As Biden enjoys the privileges of being part of the wealthy elite, his concern for opening up higher education for all seems to have faded.
The Problem of Inequality in Higher Education
It turns out that academia looks a lot like the U.S. For nearly half a century, the very rich in higher education have gotten much richer, while the middle class has stagnated and the working poor have suffered. And inequality has dramatically increased. Professors at elite private colleges are doing better than ever. And faculty in fields that appeal to the rich, such as business and economics, have seen their salaries escalate dramatically. Biden likes to brand himself as “Middle-Class Joe,” but he has become the embodiment of privilege as a celebrity professor at an elite university teaching no classes.
Biden has never retracted his 2012 attack on professors. He needs to explain why he thought professors were overpaid, and if he still believes this. He needs to reveal his own salary, as well as how much money the University of Pennsylvania spent on a center devoted to promoting Biden’s political ambitions while he prepared to run for president.
Biden also needs to explain why he is rejecting his 2015 proposal to support four years of free public college education. He needs to show that he understands the deep inequality within higher education that he is a part of, and provide better plans to fix it.
College affordability is a crucial issue to many voters, and an important factor in the U.S.’s growing inequality. In 2015, Biden declared, “[W]e have to level the playing field for the American people” and “ make the same commitment to a college education today that we made to a high school education a hundred years ago.” If Biden won’t listen to what he used to believe, and follow the other leading Democratic candidates in advocating free public higher education, he may lose support from voters who want a candidate who can live up to Biden’s past vision for the U.S.
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