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Awkward: Clinton attacks Sanders’ free college plan — but her plan has same flaw

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

(AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Hillary Clinton has started to poke holes in Bernie Sanders’ “free college” plan, but she’s exposed weaknesses in her own plan.

“Clinton’s campaign has increasingly criticized the Sanders plan as unrealistic because it would require states, including those with spending-shy Republican governors and legislatures, to cover some of the costs associated with eliminating tuition at public colleges and universities,” Michael Stratford wrote for Inside Higher Ed.

That’s a valid critique on the political realities that Sanders’ plan will face if he wins the presidential election.

However, it’s an awkward jab that’s more in line with a Republican talking point. In Clinton’s plan, too, her vision of “debt-free” college includes asking states to provide more money for higher education.

Sanders wants to require the federal government to cover two-thirds of the cost of public college tuition, while states pick up the other third. Clinton’s plan doesn’t specify ratios, but it would require states to “halt disinvestment” and commit “to provide debt-free tuition at four-year public colleges and free tuition at community colleges,” Stratford wrote.

It’s unclear why Sanders would have a difficult time in persuading Republican governors to follow his policy lead, but Clinton would find success in her approach. Her debt-free college plan is a difference in degree, not kind, to Sanders’s “tuition-free” college plan.

As much as presidential candidates promise to fix a problem, their powers in reality tend to be limited. The federal government has taken over the student loan industry and funds higher education primarily through money for students, whereas state money is provided for students and the institutions themselves.

In the last decade, however, federal money has trumped state spending with the rapid increase in the Pell Grant program, student aid aimed at lower-income students. Overall federal spending is now about $3 billion more than state spending on higher education. That gives the federal government certain influence on college policy and funding, but they can’t act unilaterally without the input of state governors.

“Sanders’s and Clinton’s plans would both end up increasing the role of the federal government in higher education by calling for billions of dollars in new spending. But to the extent Clinton’s plan would directly subsidize colleges’ operating costs, it would more significantly remake the federal government’s relationship with individual institutions,” Stratford noted.

If Clinton, or possibly Sanders, couldn’t get support on the state level, they could try to work around it on the federal level. If that happened, it could erode state support for higher education, as state budgets could cut higher education funding and expect the federal government to fund the difference.

The buy-in from governors isn’t so far-fetched, however. Kentucky and Tennessee have Republican governors, but have pushed through free community college as an investment with a quick return on economic growth in their states. Economists tend to be more skeptical about the benefits of free college, but if the Sanders plan isn’t feasible, as Clinton proclaims, then neither is hers.


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