Denouncing Free College in the Name of the Poor

Protest against the imposition of tuition at New York City's Cooper Union, historically a tuition-free private college.Protest against the imposition of tuition at New York City’s Cooper Union, historically a tuition-free private college. (Photo: Michael Fleshman / Flickr)

Although corporate media outlets have blasted presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for “living in an economic fantasy world,” his proposed plan for free tuition in public universities is hardly radical. To be funded by a modest financial transaction tax — 0.5 percent on stock transactions and 0.1 percent on bond transactions — it’s essentially an older policy being reinstated to create revenue for a social program.

Many countries, including the UK, France, Japan, India and Taiwan, already have similar taxes and the US had one until 1966. And a number of industrialized nations, like Germany, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and the Scandinavian countries, have instituted free college tuition without evident chaotic societal breakdown.

And yet a flurry of media “experts” have rushed to denounce not only the financial tax as a means to fund college tuition, but the prospect of socialized higher education as a concept.

Oddly enough, they present their fight against free higher education as advocacy for the poor.

At the Washington Post (2/23/16), education writer Jeffrey J. Selingo capped off “The False Hope of Free College” with “expertise” from the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, concluding with touching concern for students in poverty: “Free tuition fails to change the college-going patterns of low-income students and quickly becomes an entitlement for those students who need it the least.”

Selingo echoed Hillary Clinton’s comment last November (Talking Points Memo, 11/14/15): “I disagree with free college for everybody. I don’t think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college.” (Trump’schildren actually attended Wharton and Georgetown — private schools not covered by Sanders’ plan — but perhaps they would have gone to CUNY had it been tuition-free.)

Three days later, NPR’s Planet Money (2/26/16) invited a panel of 22 economists “from across the political spectrum” to comment on some of the proposed policies of the presidential primary candidates. The show — made possible of course with financial support from Personal Capital, a financial advising and “wealth management” firm — ran an online brief of the panel, with three quotes on Sanders’ education plan and three on Clinton’s.

While Clinton’s plan — a work-study program that would pay for community college, provided students work 10 hours a week — received a positive, negative and an ambivalent review, Sanders’ plan was panned by all three economists quoted:

  • 2007 Nobel Laureate Eric Maskin called Sanders’ plan “too indiscriminate. Many students can afford to pay a considerable amount toward their higher education. It is wasteful to give them a free ride.”

  • Hilary Hoynes at UC Berkeley replied, “I favor making tuition free for low- and moderate-income students. But I don’t think it makes sense to subsidize high-income families for their children to attend college. “

  • Larry Samuelson at Yale put it bluntly: “There are many who can and should pay for college.”

Former UC Berkeley chancellor Robert J. Birgeneau took this argument ad absurdum in the LA Times (2/29/16) with “Why Does Bernie Sanders Want to Increase Income Inequality?” Birgeneau, whose chancellorship is best remembered for cracking down on Occupy Cal, eventually made the confounding argument that free higher ed would mean low-income students wouldn’t attend at all:

Zeroing out tuition nationally would require tripling public funding for most state colleges and universities. It is entirely unrealistic to believe that taxes would be increased enough to provide that funding…. Said starkly, zero tuition equals zero low-income students.

In “Bernie Sanders’ Free College Tuition Boondoggle,” a comparatively more substantive article at the Pete Peterson–funded Fiscal Times (3/1/16), Marc Joffe contradicted both Selingo and Birgeneay, saying that free higher ed wouldattract students that might not otherwise attend college. But he retained the same concern that the policy would benefit the privileged:

Some of the new spending will subsidize rich kids who don’t need the money or will be wasted on students unprepared for higher education and thus likely to drop out. Funds that middle-class investors need for a secure retirement will be diverted to the already profitable college textbook business.

Sanders has been explicit in targeting Wall Street in his campaign, but the recent backlash to free higher education has not offered a defense of the financial industry. It would be difficult, after all, to sell the idea that a fraction of a percentage tax would destabilize American markets. What the experts have done instead is argue that welfare is for the poor, and that people who can pay, should pay.

In our austerity economy, it’s easy to see how the definition of poverty is constantly shaved down until virtually no one qualifies as poor or deserving enough to receive benefits. There are countless examples, most recently the SNAP time bomb leftover from Clintonian welfare reform, which stands to eliminate for stamps for between 500,000 and a million people on April 1.

Higher education has seen both dramatic and subtle cuts to federal as well as state funding over the years. (As recently December of 2014, Congress slashed$303 million in Pell Grants.) Meanwhile, in-state tuition and fees at public universities has increased by 296 percent since 1995 alone.

While media-cited economists treat the idea that people who can afford to pay for college should pay as common sense, there is a long economic tradition of questioning such “means-testing” for benefit programs — illustrated by the resistance to cutting Social Security and Medicare benefits for the wealthy. As economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman (Conscience of a Liberal, 7/24/11) argued:

If you want the well-off to pay more, it’s just better to raise their taxes…. A tax rise would get a significant amount of revenue from the very, very rich (because they have so much money), while means-testing would end up imposing the same burden on $400,000-a-year working Wall Street stiffs that it imposes on billion-a-year hedge fund managers.

(Krugman doesn’t actually think of people making $400,000 a year as “working stiffs” — it’s an allusion to a remark by Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street — but he uses them to illustrate the difference “between the filthy rich and the merely affluent.”)

Former World Bank chief economist Joseph Stiglitz actually argued against means-testing entitlements by making an analogy to the seemingly more obvious case of education. “We don’t means-test public education,” he toldAlterNet (12/31/12), “because we believe that we want people to have the same opportunities and we lose out on that with means-testing.”

Even Matt Yglesias at Vox (3/10/16), who (in true neo-liberal fashion) considers means-tested higher education “more progressive,” praises the strength in simplicity of Sanders’ plan, saying, “Clinton’s plan seems like it was written by higher-education wonks for an audience of higher-education wonks.”

Large national programs like the British National Health Service are less vulnerable to austerity, largely because nearly everyone in the UK uses them and therefore a large number of people would object to cuts in services. You don’t need to be a democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders to conclude from this that if you want a service to be both high-quality and secure in its permanence, it should not be merely a service for the destitute.

The economists and higher education policy wonks that have been dominating the media’s response to Sanders’ education plan are often portrayed as objective specialists merely assessing the feasibility of a financial tax to fund free college for all. What they’re actually doing is taking a hard ideological line against the robust, comprehensive projects required of a welfare state.