WASHINGTON — Hillary Clinton’s proposal for making public higher education not just cheaper but free to most Americans sounds good on paper. A few years after the plan’s implementation, a family that earns as much as $125,000 annually would not have to pay tuition to send a child to a state-sponsored college or university. The beginning earning cutoff level would be $85,000 and increase annually to the top figure.
What a deal, huh? It’s close to one that nearly catapulted Sen. Bernie Sanders to the Democratic presidential nomination. Huge numbers of young voters jumped on his bandwagon with his promise of a free education. He still lost but not before he bullied Clinton into picking up the keystone of his socialist-oriented program.
If you would like to know what this would cost, it’s anyone’s guess. The conservative estimates range up to half a trillion dollars. But that probably is a low-ball figure considering the history of such projects. The money would come from both the federal government and states, which would have the opportunity to opt out. Either way, taxpayers would be stuck with bills.
What’s going on here is a politician’s dream and a taxpayer’s ultimate nightmare — a version of the old chicken in every pot political gambit that takes advantage of the failure of states to provide the support they once did for their public institutions of higher learning. The plan promises more than can be delivered. State support for annual budgets in major public schools has fallen to single digits. The result has been a steady demand for higher tuitions and fees that has driven schools to make up the shortfall by seeking out-of-state or foreign students who pay much more than state residents. Just contemplating the debt load of sending one family member to college produces nausea and sleep deprivation akin to studying for an advanced calculus exam.
The trauma to the public treasury would worsen with the creation of another entitlement program alongside Medicare and Medicaid and now Obamacare, the collection of which, without serious change somewhere along the line, ultimately will drive this nation into bankruptcy or the kind of socialistic government Sanders wants. Either taxes go up or something goes down, such as defense.
Then there is the question of all those private schools that would not only not receive any benefit from the Clinton proposal but might also face financial disaster, especially if their endowments are small. Competition from the major state universities for students is strong enough as it is without having the recruiting rug jerked even further from under them. Why would a student elect to go solidly into debt for four years of undergraduate studies when he can receive the same thing free? Would it be because he likes a smaller school and more personal attention? Perhaps, but most could be expected to sacrifice those academic luxuries for a particularly seductive four letter word: free.
With growing enrollments to bolster their budget needs, the small gems of higher education that don’t have billion-dollar endowments to sustain them would be up against it, forced to get even more expensive. Many would fail.
As a trustee of a venerated, small liberal arts school, I can certify the financial difficulties these schools face. Raising tuition, which is already high, would be a disaster. Fundraising campaigns for capital and faculty needs are more difficult daily.
There has to be a better way to lower college costs. A good start would be for state legislatures to provide more support to their institutions rather than to buy into a pie-in-the-sky proposal that would end up stressing their taxpayers more. Many states would opt not to participate in Clinton’s proposal. It is also difficult to believe that Congress, which would have to provide funds through the Department of Education, would see this as politically beneficial. Certainly not as it is made up today.
Hillary’s plan — a more extensive one than she proposed earlier — is obviously designed to appease all those followers of Sanders and keep them in the fold. She may or may not need them.
Before you panic or thrill to the possibility of sending junior off to school on someone else’s nickel, you should contemplate the shortcomings and pitfalls and understand the political origin of this proposal. It most likely won’t reach reality for a long time, if ever.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Dan Thomasson is an op-ed columnist for Tribune News Service and a former vice president of Scripps Howard Newspapers. Readers may send him email at: [email protected].
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