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Who’s Against “College for All”?

The financial elite and their supporters want to retain the influence of money on higher education policy.

Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, speaks at event held by the Center for American Progress. (Photo: Center for American Progress)

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Bernie Sanders has long aimed to end the influence of money in politics. Now he hopes to reduce the corrosive influence of money in higher education with the College for All Act, a federal bill that would bring back tuition-free public higher education. Like most of Sanders’ proposals – supporting Social Security, a reasonable minimum wage, investment in infrastructure – his college plan is closely aligned with the mainstream views of the US electorate. On top of the free tuition, Sanders would regulate student loans and student labor, provide financial aid for living expenses and set a national standard for tenured/track faculty, including at teaching institutions. Nothing in the plan is without abundant precedent, both in the United States and abroad.

The popularity of College for All has forced reaction from the other presidential contenders, on both sides of the aisle.

Most prominent of these is the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton, who, for at least the last six months, has been outflanked on higher education issues by think tanks, other lawmakers and President Obama, who proposed free community college in his January State of the Union speech.

Millennials, progressives, students and their parents listened carefully to Clinton’s July 13 address, billed as the kickoff of her primary campaign, and her first major discussion of economic issues in this election cycle. Many anticipated that she would to commit to the “debt-free” standard of college finance reform set by Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), Charles Schumer (D-New York) and dozens of lawmakers in her own party in a recent joint congressional resolution.

But Clinton gave the topic just one sentence, vaguely promising more affordability and a scheme to “refinance” student debt. This weak formulation disappointed the base, but wowed her supporters in the finance industry.

Instead of a higher education policy document, the days before Clinton’s speech saw a handful of surrogates pop up to smear Sanders and his plan, or endorse the candidate’s largely nonexistent education positions. With the evident popularity of the debt-free and College For All plans, the surrogates largely appeared from the ranks of minor leaguers or the politically desperate, like the disgraced Anthony “Carlos Danger” Weiner, whose spouse is a prominent Clinton aide, or American Federation of Teachers (AFT) president Randi Weingarten, a longtime Clinton supporter who never developed much traction with the Obama administration.

The timing of the AFT announcement, the first big labor union endorsement of the campaign, bolstered Clinton’s education credentials, but infuriated progressives and many AFT members, who – even in the event of a Clinton endorsement – would first have preferred to see the candidate make a commitment to specifics.

Policy lobbyists also flocked to portray a Clinton coronation as inevitable in the run-up to the speech. Most visible in the higher education trade press was a shameless hit piece by Kevin Carey, a self-described “education writer” with a master’s degree in public administration.

Widely derided by commenters (“unpersuasive and agenda-driven,” “pure drivel,” “a dismissive, condescending, elitist basket of horse apples”), Carey’s attack on Sanders is short on facts and long on nastiness. The piece ridicules the personal appearance of the senator together with the tenured faculty he supposedly resembles, patronizingly dubs him “kind of weird,” casts suspicion on his political orientation in outdated Cold War rhetoric and tries to dismiss him as an “internet hero.”

Carey’s $175,000 salary is paid by the New America Foundation, which produces white papers billed as “research” aiming to influence public policy on a broad front.

According to SourceWatch, New America has ties to Peter G. Peterson, a billionaire aiming to slash public entitlements from cradle to grave; to union-busting, machine-grading education “reformers” like Bill Gates; and to the Lumina Foundation, which was bankrolled by the profits from student loans and frequently partners its higher education lobbying mission with the ultra-conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

Not to put too fine a point on it: New America is a vehicle for billionaires to shape higher education policy, and Kevin Carey is their mouthpiece. Unsurprisingly, billionaires want to retain the influence of money on higher education policy.

If there is a plank in Sanders’ bill that Carey actually addresses, it’s the federal financial incentive to return college faculty to a 75 percent ratio of tenured and track professors. “Perfectly awful,” shouts Carey, an absurdly expensive and “utopian” scheme to cripple the government with needless regulation and frivolous lawsuits over the meaning of tenure, office space and shared governance. What we need instead, Carey explains, are nonacademic employees of billionaire philanthropists to “design an organization” featuring new mixes of “labor, capital, and technology” to deliver cheap, purportedly high-quality education.

Appealing as Carey’s Fox-News-style rhetoric must be to, well, viewers of Fox News, Carey is either ignorant of relevant history, scholarship and legislation, or pretending to be. Like the rest of Sanders’ plan, a 75 percent ratio of tenured or track faculty is a tested norm, not a radical fantasy. Historically, before permatemping (the widespread substitution of “permanently temporary” contractors for regular faculty) and staff bloat, higher education enjoyed a 75 percent norm for decades without crashing any branches of government. Rafts of reliable scholarship back the belief – shared by students, parents, scholars and lawmakers – that more tenure-stream faculty is associated with better learning outcomes.

Far from being the politically impossible dream Carey pretends, the 75 percent ratio has been formally written into law since 1988 by California lawmakers and citizens who amended the state’s education code to require even community colleges to work toward that standard. Indeed, one reason that the state hasn’t reached the 75 percent standard specified by law is that California billionaires like those puttering about New America have accumulated obscene wealth without paying reasonable taxes.

It’s obviously cheaper and more fun for the mega-rich policy crowd to hire Kevin Carey to dream up new organizational models, leaving plenty of spare change for them to influence presidential elections.

Maybe Carey is right, and Sanders won’t win the Democratic nomination. Either way, one thing is clear: US voters want Bernie Sanders – and not Kevin Carey’s paymasters – to design “College for All.”

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