I have followed, with interest, the debates between the Democratic candidates for President more than I have followed the Republicans. This is not so much because  I do not know how I will vote as much as the discussion of the costs of a college education.

Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has proposed free public college tuition for all college students while former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has proposed free community college in combination with “low debt” four-year college. I have previously discussed the idea of free community college on this site. I will use this post to discussion free tuition at four-year colleges.

Senator Sanders has proposed to bring a ‘College for All’ Act to Congress if he is elected President. The proposal not only includes free public college tuition–his campaign uses a national average of $9,000 a year–but also lower interest rates on student loans and tripled funding for the Federal College Work Study program to create more campus jobs. The senator has also proposed that borrowers who have already taken out student loans, whether in college, graduated or withdrawn, be able to refinance their loans at lower rates.

The senator believes that free tuition could be financed with a tax of a fraction of one percent on “Wall Street speculators,” although there are other places in America where stocks, futures and bonds are traded. However, another site supporting Sanders mentions that the states would be asked to cover 33 percent of the costs.  I am not aware of any U.S. state that covers as much as 33 percent of an individual’s costs towards a public college education before grants are considered. The costs for covering full tuition–no mention of student fees–are expected to be between $70 and $75 billion.

Suppose Senator Sanders were to win the Democratic nomination, then the Presidency. I have no doubt that he would face a Republican House, and possibly a Republican Senate. Given the relationships between the Republican leadership and President Obama today, I sincerely doubt that they would show a President Sanders more love. If anything, a retrenchment bill, to cut or freeze spending on the Federal programs, would get out of both houses, only for President Sanders to veto. Sanders would likely have enough Democrats in the Senate to have the veto upheld. Then we have an ineffective President, and an ineffective Congress, as we have now.

But let’s say that I’m wrong. Bernie Sanders carries Democratic majorities into both houses on his coattails. He then must convince governors of both parties to go along with a free tuition plan. I can picture the governors of states such as Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Tennessee, all Republicans, saying no. Those states already have their own scholarship programs and would not want to be further accountable to a Federal authority. I cannot picture the governors of states such as Illinois or New Jersey, already under debt pressures, being able to find matching funds.

In addition, the leadership of the better-endowed flagship public universities would prefer to have more latitude on tuition and fees than they have now. They would prefer to be less accountable to a state or federal government, not more. They would also have another problem: if tuition was free, their schools would become more selective. The costs to process more applications would rise; their reputation as “accessible” institutions could be compromised if they have to turn more applicants away. This is already a problem in California at UC-Berkeley and UCLA, which are part of a state system with one of the best financial aid plans in the U.S.

The only way that a President Sanders could get around all this would be to propose that the Federal Government designate “target schools” that would be willing to match a Federal grant and Work-Study money (maybe a higher student wage) with state and institutional funds to enable a select group of schools to be college tuition free. Rutgers-Camden and Rutgers-Newark have already taken a similar approach with qualified students who are eligible for the Federal Pell Grant as well as New Jersey’s Tuition Aid Grant. In effect, the university campuses are committed to make up the difference for their neediest students to help them graduate with little to no debt. These programs will be successful at these Rutgers campuses as long as graduation rates continue to improve.

Under a target school program, a Sanders Administration would probably set conditions for a school to receive the money. Aside from the obvious–the money could only be used to cover college tuition–the school might be asked to submit a plan to keep tuition and fee increases to minimums (possibly zero) or improve outcomes such as retention and graduation rates. A school would be expected to prioritize students by need and academic performance, with the least needy receiving less. It would be an embarrassment to a school and the supporters of a Federal target school program if students who are in poor academic standing would receive free tuition for more than eight or ten semesters. Especially if those students could have paid.

In order for this program to work, the Federal Government would have to do a great job at picking “winning” schools. I don’t know if I can trust them to do it given the pressures those choosers would face to put politics ahead of performance.

Most likely, a target school would not be the flagship, unless the state has few public options. It would more likely be a school such as Rutgers-Newark, the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle, Virginia Commonwealth University or City University of New York campuses that already charge lower tuition and fees than the most selective public schools in their states.These schools are also places where students are most likely to be working while completing their education, benefiting from flexible class schedules. But they are also, for the most part, commuter schools accountable to the cities where they are located as well as state government. Their administrations might be more receptive to a great Federal role in exchange for assistance. But these people answer to others who could be less receptive. Not to mention that, for the most part, these schools are not the ones that will likely appeal to the better students in their communities.

A target school program would likely cost less than $75 billion though it certainly would not sound as sexy as free public college for all, nor would have the same impacts. It might even become a source of ridicule for a Sanders Administration should a target school prove to be nothing more than a drain of Federal funds. It takes only one failure to force a bunch of adversaries in Congress to call hearings with the motive of ending a program with free tuition for some, with a claim that its termination would benefit all.


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