At a town hall on CNN Tuesday night, Clinton reaffirmed her opposition to Bernie Sanders' plan to make all public universities tuition-free. In doing so, she repeated a somewhat bizarre talking point the media has allowed her to push almost entirely without challenge:
CLINTON: And then on the affordability side, I do disagree with Senator Sanders, with his plan about, you know, free college, because I want to have debt-free tuition, but I don't believe that my family or Donald Trump's family or a lot of other families that can afford it should have the advantage of free college. I think they should be contributing on behalf of their children.
There’s a few problems with this line of reasoning, the most apparent of which is that Donald Trump is exceedingly unlikely to send his kids to public school, as is Clinton. Her daughter Chelsea went to private school her whole life, which is sort of the point: those who cannot afford such luxuries ought not get into tens of thousands of dollars debt for the chance to do so. There are some on the left who make the argument that free public education has pitfalls, but it’s strange and counterproductive for someone claiming to be the standard bearer of the progressive mantle (the getting-things-done variety) to spend so much time arguing against a long-held progressive stance.
Above all, the argument that free public college is bad because rich people could take advantage of it is dubious because this logic could apply to any general public good: parks, K-12 education, roads, public works, NEA, public television, etc. As with Social Security, creating a “right” by making something universal enshrines it into the political culture and makes future inevitable attempts to chip away at it very difficult. Moreover, any benefits provided to the wealthy under Sanders' free college plan are more than offset by the fact that the wealthy, on his watch, would be paying meaningfully higher taxes. The idea that billionaires like Trump could somehow game the system by sending their children to these sexy, free public colleges—all the while paying much higher income, estate and capital gains taxes—doesn’t stand up to review.
America’s brand of capitalism is defined by massive inequality; it’s the fabric of our culture and something the public has learned to accept by and large. It does so, however, under the condition that we have social mobility and this social mobility we are told, is achieved primarily through education. Access to education is the entire thing, at least in principle, that makes rampant inequality morally and socially acceptable. The turning of that institution into a massive profit center marked by a spiraling tuition cost and massive personal debt takes the one thing that’s supposed to make inequality okay and snuffs it out. Work hard and get education, the poor and middle class are told, and they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. But with the cost of the average public education increasing by almost 30% over the past five years alone, how tenable is this social contract? It's no wonder then that social mobility in the United States is one of the worst in the western world; the one thing that's supposed to make it possible is increasingly out of reach.
Sanders' plan is an attempt to decommodify education for the working and middle class and turn it into a public good. Clinton’s solution, like Obamacare, is an attempt to maintain the neoliberal, for-profit order while promising “debt-free college.” This maintains the status quo while the government, in theory, underrides the cost. Clinton’s plan, however, has work requirements for poor students, which is something she doesn’t mention much these days. As Zaid Jilani noted last September:
Clinton's view highlights the main difference between the two candidates: Sanders views college as a right that cannot be denied or tied to a student's income or ability to work a job alongside their studies. To Clinton, it's a commodity, that the government can make cheaper under certain circumstances. Her work requirement would mostly impact poor students, whose parents could not simply offer up the support needed to pay tuition.
Much like single-payer healthcare, free college is not a new or exotic idea. It’s a decades-long institution in places as diverse as Germany, Mexico, Finland, France, Slovenia and Brazil. Indeed, the word sophistic, which means “Apparently sound but really fallacious,” is derived from the Sophists of ancient Greece—a group of educators who charged citizens to learn. During Socrates time this was considered a rather vulgar act—education was meant to impress wisdom on a pupil, not the ability to win an argument. It was meant to be a public good that benefited society, not a commodity to be traded and monetized. Sophists, Socrates was said to have told Plato were "specious" and "deceptive.” And while the notion of education as public good may offend the sensibilities of the libertarian and neoliberal orthodoxies that defines much of our education discourse, it’s an idea that is both precedented and empirically effective.
Clinton’s opposition comes back to her go-to argument for almost everything "universal" Sanders proposes: that it’s about feasibility, not whether the idea is theoretically a good one. If that’s the case, if Clinton honestly thinks getting free college past Congress is virtually impossible, that’s a respectable position. She should make that argument in good faith, rather than taking the normative progressive stance of universal, free education and dragging it through the mud in the interest of a nice-sounding talking point.