The rejection of “free college” by a prominent contender for the Democratic US presidential nomination spotlights clashes between the candidates over the idea, but also the need for a political debate on higher education that “reflects what college students actually look like”, according to experts.
As the race for the Democratic nomination hots up, differing – and overlapping – policies on higher education funding are proving to be key. Pete Buttigieg, the middle-America college-town mayor now rising up in presidential polls, has turned some heads in recent days by warning that cost-free college offers the greatest benefit for those who least need it.
“As a progressive,” he told students at Northeastern University in Boston, “I have a hard time getting my head around the idea of a majority who earn less, because they didn’t go to college, subsidising a minority who earn more because they did.”
In the minds of some commentators, that declaration set the telegenic mayor of South Bend, Indiana, apart from other leading Democratic contenders. Bernie Sanders and Julián Castro back versions of tuition-free college, while Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand advocate for debt-free college.
Mr Buttigieg overtly embraces neither, instead emphasising a goal of making college far more affordable by expanding the Pell Grant programme for low-income students and encouraging states to spend more on college.
The actual policy differences, however, are far smaller than the energetic headlines about Mr Buttigieg's position suggest. Other than perhaps Mr Sanders, none of the leading presidential candidates is clearly calling for the elimination of all tuition fees at public institutions.
According to Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said Mr Buttigieg appears pretty centred among his Democratic rivals in seeking some way of making college – especially the first two years – truly possible for all students regardless of wealth.
“The sweet spot is where Buttigieg and all these other people are landing,” Dr Carnevale said. And by continuing to push for truly tuition-free college “Bernie is left holding the bag”, he added.
While it may win Mr Sanders enthusiastic crowds and primary votes, the possibility of the US government’s providing truly free college is zero, according to one leading US political analyst. Larry J. Sabato, professor of politics at the University of Virginia, said that the idea was as “dead as the proverbial doornail”.
The confusion that nevertheless cast Mr Buttigieg, rather than Mr Sanders, as the greater outlier was an example of how resolving the complicated details of improving college affordability was unlikely to occur during a political campaign, Dr Carnevale and other experts said.
Ben Miller, vice-president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress thinktank, said that “raising concerns about free college”, as Mr Buttigieg was doing, was “not the same thing as saying we don’t need to make progress on college affordability. Often I see the two get intertwined.”
In fact, the focus in US political coverage on perceived differences between Democratic candidates over “free college” could be obscuring a more important area in which Democrats and Republicans may find room for progress: vocational training – also described as skills-based training or competency training.
Republicans have led calls for slimmer versions of the Pell Grant that can be used for shorter-duration skills-oriented training, as part of their long-standing push for colleges to be more tightly focused on meeting immediate employer needs.
Yet, even as adults pursuing mid-career retraining claim a bigger and bigger share of postsecondary education, the needs of such adults command a relatively small share of higher education-related attention on the presidential campaign trail.
“It’s a remarkable absence,” Dr Carnevale said. Instead of voters routinely demanding that politicians help low-skilled workers afford job training, he noted, “they want [candidates] to say what Trump says to them: I’m going to bring your job back.”
As such, said Beth Popp Berman of the State University of New York Albany, the emphasis on terms such as “free college” was yet another way in which political debates fail to capture reality.
“It’s just very hard,” said Dr Berman, an associate professor of sociology who specialises in education, “to get people to talk about college students in a way that reflects what college students actually look like.”
The fog often seems deliberate, said Wesley Whistle, an education policy adviser with the Third Way thinktank. “These candidates have to distinguish themselves in such a crowded field,” he said. At least in their messaging to voters, Mr Whistle said, “they can’t all support the same policies”.