Biden plan affirms Democrat unanimity on US college costs

Experts sceptical of free-college methods, but welcome party-wide commitment for 2020 poll

October 17, 2019
Tuition fees protesters
Source: Getty

Former US vice-president Joe Biden has cheered higher education advocates by issuing a plan to provide for free community college, and thereby virtually guaranteeing that any Democratic successor to Donald Trump is committed to tackling the nation’s college affordability crisis.

Mr Biden’s presidential campaign proposal – which also includes student loan forgiveness and repayment initiatives, and money for minority-serving institutions – makes him the last of the leading Democratic contenders to formally outline a strategy for helping students pay for college.

Although Mr Biden’s ideas are less aggressive than those of some top Democratic contenders, the key significance was the solidifying unanimity on the need, educational experts said.

“There’s been so much momentum behind this thing,” said Bruce Sacerdote, professor of economics at Dartmouth College, “that something will happen on this issue.”

Other leading contenders for the right to challenge Mr Trump in the November 2020 election include senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, both of whom have declared that four-year public colleges should be free to attend.

South Bend, Indiana, mayor Pete Buttigieg has a plan to make public college debt-free for low-income students, while former US congressman Beto O’Rourke has suggested making community college free and other public college debt-free.

With Mr Biden’s call for spending $750 billion (£600 billion) largely on making community college free, the former US senator and Obama administration vice-president has more closely aligned himself with Mr Buttigieg and Mr O’Rourke. The cost would be covered largely by increasing taxes on high-income Americans.

Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Center on Education Data and Policy at the Urban Institute and professor emerita of economics at Skidmore College, agreed that the biggest message for now was the agreement on need.

“It seems unlikely that any of these proposals would be implemented as described in the campaigns,” Professor Baum said of the presidential contenders. “But it is important that the issue of increasing educational opportunities and attainment remains prominent.”

Experts, in fact, have repeatedly questioned whether free-college promises – especially those open to all students, rather than just the needy – make good policy sense.

Professor Sacerdote is a co-author on a paper recently issued by The Brookings Institution that suggests that making two-year community colleges free may do overall harm by enticing more students to avoid four-year degrees.

His finding reflects the fact that the Pell Grant, the main federal tuition subsidy for low-income students, already largely covers the cost of most community colleges. A policy of free community college, therefore, might deprive four-year colleges of some students who can afford and do well in them, Professor Sacerdote said. His study estimates that potential loss at about 6 per cent to 7 per cent of students now enrolling in four-year colleges.

Professor Baum endorsed that concern. If community college students don’t pay tuition fees, and still get $12,000 in Pell Grant money to cover living expenses, “it is not hard to imagine some people choosing this path just to make sure they can eat”, she said. “Policymakers should find ways to make sure students have sufficient funding without creating perverse incentives.”

Given that a major cause of the nation’s college affordability crisis is the long-term decline in state funding for higher education, Professor Sacerdote said, a more effective policy approach on the federal level could be some kind of inducement for states to increase their investments in universities.

paul.basken@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (1)

"Given that a major cause of the nation’s college affordability crisis is the long-term decline in state funding for higher education..." Not. If you want to know a major cause, you'll have to study details and get your hands dirty. There's a more fundamental problem than "a long term decline in state funding" which is a symptom not a cause. Here's a place to start. "Institutional Corruption. A Cause of Skyrocketing Costs of Higher Education." See, usmnews.

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