Free College Now! Why Hillary Clinton Needs to Run With Bernie Sanders’s Best Idea

To earn the love of young Democrats and win the presidency, Clinton needs to embrace Sanders’s best big idea—free college.

Marvin Gentry/Reuters

The conventional wisdom in the wake of the New York primary is that it’s all over on the Democratic side and the November election is nearly a done deal, too. Barring a stroke or indictment, it’s President Clinton. Again.

This fails to take account of the craziness of presidential politics in general and of 2016 in particular. The “New Trump” who delivered an uncharacteristically short and polite speech on primary night—like the “New Nixon” in 1968—may seem transparent. He’s the same old dangerous demagogue coached by fresh handlers to seem vaguely “presidential,” whatever that means for the least presidential candidate ever (yeah, ever) to get this close to a major party nomination.

But Donald Trump is a master media manipulator in a country of amnesiacs, so you never know. And even if Trump or Ted Cruz goes down to a crushing defeat, Republicans could have a good year. The Koch brothers and their ilk will pour hundreds of millions of dollars into keeping the Congress and a majority of governorships and state legislatures in Republican hands. If younger voters excited by Bernie Sanders stay home in droves, it may or may not wreck Hillary’s chances. But it would almost certainly drive Democrats nationally into an even deeper hole.

So how can Hillary hold the Berniacs? Choosing Elizabeth Warren as her running mate would help, but there’s also a powerful thematic approach:

The Clinton forces who will almost certainly control the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia should stand aside and let the Platform Committee endorse an amended version of Sanders’s free college plan instead of the hodgepodge of proposals Hillary has offered. Then she should run on the simpler, more visionary and effective Sanders idea.

I’ve been talking a lot lately with students, who support Sanders at levels comparable to black support of Barack Obama. Beyond the coolness and authenticity factors that have been analyzed to death is an explanation I’ve heard over and over that is simultaneously wonkier and more personal. It’s not just that Sanders’s college plan is “free” and everyone likes free stuff. If you’re up to your eyeballs in college debt with little prospect of a high-paying job, the details matter. And the details favor the Sanders position.

Until recently, I supported the Clinton plan because I didn’t want my taxes to pay for little Trumps and other trust fund kids to go to public universities. But that can be easily addressed by mean-testing the Sanders plan for families earning more than, say, $250,000 a year. Otherwise, I’ve now realized, Bernie’s plan is better, both substantively and politically.

Let’s start with the big picture: Everyone outside of the Republican Party understands that we have to move aggressively on college costs to save the American middle class. Free elementary and secondary public education has been one of this country’s main economic and social engines for generations, and no one has ever called it a wasteful “entitlement.” It’s past time to extend the concept of free public education to college, as most other developed countries do. Lifetime earnings for college graduates are more than half a million dollars higher than for high school graduates, and the unemployment rate for those with four-year college degrees is very low. Meanwhile, dropout rates are distressingly high, often because of cost. That condemns millions of Americans to a life of meager wages.

Nowadays, not having a post-secondary degree is tantamount to not having a chance in America. It shouldn’t be that way, but it is.

Hillary has endorsed Obama’s free college concept for two-year community colleges and vocational programs. But instead of extending the idea to four-year public colleges, as Sanders does, she concocted what she calls the “New College Compact.” By stressing reciprocal responsibilities, it builds on the idea of college loans in exchange for community service that was at the heart of Bill Clinton’s AmeriCorps program. That sounded good in 1992, but the notion that students need to scrape and sacrifice for something as essential as college is outdated. Hillary’s plan makes the mistake of linking more manageable college loans to working 10 hours a week and otherwise jumping through eligibility hoops that even an A student would have to read five times on her website to understand.

Worse, the plan is based on a false promise. “The New College Compact ensures that students can attend a four-year public college without taking loans for tuition,” the plan says. This is misleading, given that the plan is based on states buying in without much incentive to do so. Even if some states do participate, tens of thousands of students would fall through the cracks under her jerry-built plan.

It’s not just the simplicity and elegant messaging of the Sanders plan that is superior. By structuring the plan so that two-thirds of its cost is paid by Washington and one-third by the states, Washington would have the leverage required to bring real change to the bloated and self-satisfied higher ed establishment. The plan also cracks down on reliance on low-paid adjuncts (some of whom are forced to go on food stamps) and prevents any funds being used for administrators (a huge source of fat) or the construction of non-academic buildings like stadiums or student centers.

Get The Beast In Your Inbox!

Daily Digest

Start and finish your day with the top stories from The Daily Beast.

Cheat Sheet

A speedy, smart summary of all the news you need to know (and nothing you don't).

By clicking “Subscribe,” you agree to have read the Terms of Use and Privacy Policy
Thank You!
You are now subscribed to the Daily Digest and Cheat Sheet. We will not share your email with anyone for any reason.

And Sanders’s plan, unlike Hillary’s, doesn’t include private colleges. That would put huge pressure on those schools to reduce tuition to compete with public universities, which would in turn make Pell grants for those schools go further.

Sanders pays for his plan with a “Robin Hood” tax on every Wall Street transaction. Like many of his other ideas about finance, this one is probably unworkable and bad for the economy. But the $47 billion price tag shouldn’t scare people off. That’s less than 1 percent of the federal budget and the money could be found in plenty of places if we decided free college was a national priority.

Of course free four-year college would be strongly opposed by Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell, and company. But if Democrats ran on it this year and drilled it relentlessly into the public conversation, they would have a mandate. That in turn would put Clinton as president in a much stronger negotiating position next year to get some kind of compromise college bill, maybe one closer to her original proposal. But if she starts with that plan, she’ll end up with something much weaker, or maybe nothing at all.

In other words, the current Hillary approach on college is not just an uninspiring, poorly messaged stew. It’s also weak congressional politics. Burned by the over-reach on Hillarycare in 1994, she has generally favored incremental change. Had Clinton been president in 2009, she almost certainly would have taken Rahm Emanuel’s advice and settled for something much less ambitious than Obamacare. Democrats have a history of offering an opening bid that is too moderate, then watching the resolution of an issue shift to the right when Republicans stake out an extreme position and the eventual compromise (and yes, there are still compromises every legislative session) ends up right of center.

Bernie often goes too far in the other direction, offering pie-in-the-sky ideas with little chance of passage. But free college is not one of them. It’s a big, visionary idea that has already shown electoral power this season with millions of young voters.

Hillary should make it her own.