Not a Federal Agency (Yet)
In a recent post on BloombergView, Professor Stephen Carter critiques plans by former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to reduce the price that some citizens pay at some colleges and universities. As Carter explains, both plans seek to reduce the costs of attending public colleges and universities, thereby increasing access to higher education and reducing the debt burdens of those who matriculate. The more ambitious (and more expensive) Sanders plan would provide states with federal grants of $47 billion annually on the condition that such states: (1) increase their yearly spending on higher education by $23 billion and (2) reduce tuition and fees to zero for all students, including those from wealthy families. The more modest Clinton plan would cost a mere $350 Billion over ten years and provide additional aid, in the form of grants, to students who are unable to pay their own way, thereby reducing the costs that such individuals must incur to attend public colleges and universities. The plan would couple such aid with a requirement that recipients work 10 hours per week. While the Sanders plan focuses solely on public universities, the Clinton plan sets aside funds to support a small number of private institutions that serve numerous low-income students. To adopt such plans, a future Congress would have to exercise the power "[t]o lay and collect taxes . . . . to pay the Debts and provide for the common Defense and general Welfare of the United States." See U.S. Constitution, Article I, § 8.
Professor Carter begins his critique by questioning "the underlying assumption that college is too expensive." Among other things he notes that a college education is an investment in human capital, and that, for those who complete college, the median return on such investments has "outstripped the rising cost." (See here for a prior elaboration of this point on this blog.) The real problem, Carter says, is that many students who pay such tuition, perhaps taking on debt to do so, never graduate and are thus unable to realize this return. Indeed, as previously explained on this blog, many state flagship universities have four year graduation rates of 25 percent or lower. Even if college is too costly, Professor Carter says, both plans may well exacerbate the problem, by increasing the demand for such education and thus further increasing college costs. Carter also suggests that, if enacted, either plan may include implicit price controls to combat increased costs, controls that Carter sagely considers counter-productive. Indeed, a summary of the Sanders Plan expressly provides that state institutions would have to "meet a number of requirements designed to protect students, ensure quality and reduce ballooning costs," while simultaneously (and inconsistently) "reduc[ing] their reliance on low-paid adjunct faculty." Secretary Clinton's plan is a little more vague, promising simply to require schools to "control costs" while simultaneously increasing spending on programs designed to increase graduation rates.
Professor Carter is right to be skeptical of these plans, particularly their motivating assumption that public colleges (the target of these proposals) are generally inaccessible to families of modest means. If anything, Carter is too kind to this assumption. After all, and as previously explained on this blog, many such institutions provide generous grant-based financial aid to low income students. Indeed, some public colleges offer packages that are significantly more generous either the Sanders or Clinton plans, which focus on subsidizing tuition and fees while ignoring room and board. That is, some public universities provide low income students free tuition, free fees and free room and board, allowing these students to graduate debt-free. (See here, here, and here, for examples). Others heavily subsidize college costs, ensuring that students graduate with debt far below the actual cost and value of the education that such students receive. (See here, here and here). The University of Washington, for instance, has already replicated the result sought by the Sanders plan, providing low income students free tuition and fees, with the result that such students need only assume loans to cover room and board --- the type of expense students would incur whether or not they attended college. Ditto for Arizona State, Texas A&M and Rutgers-Camden. The University of Virginia caps student debt for in-state students at $14,000 over four years. Some such schools also provide significant grant aid to students from middle class families. Rutgers-Camden, for instance, provides grants equal to one half tuition and fees to students from families with incomes between $60,000 and $100,000 per year. (See here). Berkeley offers grant-based aid to students from families earning up to $140,000 annually. (See here). Various other institutions offer significant financial aid to middle class families as well. (See here and here, for instance).
To be sure, students from wealthy families do not qualify for such aid because their families' income and/or assets exceed relevant thresholds. Such students must pay full tuition and fees plus the cost of room and board. The Clinton Plan would do nothing to help these individuals, and this omission from her plan is to be commended. As W. Taylor Reveley III, President of the College of William and Mary recently put it, when speaking of tuition and fees at William and Mary (a public institution): "[I]f you come from a family who can afford to pay full freight, you are still getting excellent value for one of the best undergraduate educations in the world.” Reveley of course is absolutely correct: tuition and fees at William and Mary, ranked 34th among national universities according to U.S. News, is $16,919, while tuition and fees at the University of Virginia, ranked 26th, is $14,526. By contrast, Tufts (27th), Boston College (30th) and Brandeis (34th) charge triple these amounts or more. Nonetheless, the Sanders plan would shift the cost of educating wealthy individuals at public universities entirely to taxpayers, while providing no additional assistance to students who attend more costly private institutions. So far as this blogger is aware, Senator Sanders has not explained why American taxpayers must foot the bill so wealthy children can attend public universities for free.
In sum, the current landscape of higher education pricing for students of modest means hardly justifies centralized intervention and a resulting one-sized fits all solution that both candidates advocate to some degree. Indeed, if enacted, the Sanders plan in particular risks preempting state institutions from offering free room and board and thus ensuring that students graduate debt free, as some schools currently do. After all, schools generally rely upon tuition revenue to fund part of such aid, and the Sanders plan would eliminate this source of revenue. Moreover, the Sanders Plan's ban on tuition and other forms of over-regulation that Professor Carter sagely predicts will place public institutions at a decided disadvantage vis a vis private institutions, who will be free of such federal micromanagement. As previously explained on this blog, the decentralized nature of America's system of higher education, including competitive federalism, is its main strength. Transforming America's public colleges and universities into quasi-federal agencies in furtherance of a new federal entitlement will undermine this strength. If, as both candidates assume, the Nation can afford to spend many billions more each year on education, it would be far better to allocate such resources to K-12 education, preferably via a system of vouchers that would empower students and their families to exercise meaningful educational choice in a free market. Such reform would help better prepare millions of students for college, enhance college graduation rates and do far more than either candidate's plan to advance the General Welfare.