The Clinton campaign made a major announcement today:
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will pursue a debt-free college for all policy, including a proposal to eliminate the cost of college tuition for a significant portion of the public.
Clinton's new proposals move her beyond previous statements that she would try to make college "as debt-free as possible" and toward making "debt-free college available to all."
Clinton is adding three features to her plan for higher education policy, called the "New College Compact." They include eliminating tuition at in-state public universities for families making under $125,000 by 2021 and restoring year-round Pell Grant funding so students can take summer classes to finish school quicker.
The plan isn't great. I think means-testing higher ed makes about as much sense as means-testing Social Security or elementary school (though, alas, we still do that in this country through local funding and property taxes). I would have preferred free higher ed for everyone.
That said, and assuming Clinton can get this plan through (a big assumption), this is still a big step forward. For three reasons.
First, lots of men and women—students and their families—will get this benefit, not in a far-off time, but soon. And make no mistake: whether you're going to CUNY, where annual tuition is a little over $6000, or Berkeley or Michigan, where in-state tuition is about $13,000, this will come as welcome relief to a lot of people.
Second, and more important for the long term, I've been saying forever that the biggest challenge facing contemporary liberalism is that, from the point of view of the average taxpayer, it has so little to offer. Imagine you're someone who lives in a house with the median household income of about $54,000 per year. You pay your taxes, but what do you concretely get for the taxes? Sure, I can point to the roads (which are often falling apart) or the schools (which are often not so good), or, down the line, to Social Security or Medicare (which, we're often told, aren't in great shape either, and in the case of Social Security, certainly can't fund a retirement). But it's hard to make the case to your average man or woman that taxes fund things that help you concretely and directly. Particularly when, at least going back to Mondale, the only message we've heard from Democrats on taxes is either: a) we'll cut them; or b) we'll increase them in order to cut the deficit and pay off the debt.
Way beyond anything between Clinton v. Sanders, this plan by Clinton is something that can, potentially, change the way people think about their taxes and what the state can do for them. It's a step toward a political and ideological realignment.
That said, there's this, too:
The new plan, announced by [Clinton's] campaign Wednesday, incorporates a major plank of Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) platform and is a direct result of the private meeting Clinton had with the Vermont senator in June, the campaign said.
Clinton's embrace of one of the most popular parts of Sanders' platform comes as she is trying to get his core supporters — including many young people worried about college debt — to enthusiastically support her candidacy in November.
Sanders gained huge support among young voters by pushing for tuition-free public colleges nationwide, and Clinton now says she would do that for families making less than $125,000.
Which brings me to my third reason.
At moments like this, you really need to get beyond the personal politics a lot of DC and media people want to make all politics into. Despite the fact that they accuse Bernie supporters of being a cult, of worshipping an ancient socialist patriarch, they're the ones who often think of these electoral campaigns completely in terms of personality, of who's winning and who's losing. To my mind, this announcement today goes way beyond the Clinton/Sanders horserace or the Clinton/Trump race. If there is anyone to be celebrated here, it's the millions of people—particularly young people—who pushed so hard during this campaign, and who have been slowly changing American politics outside the electoral realm.
One of the biggest challenges facing democracy—as opposed to liberalism—and democratic ways of thinking and doing things, is the sense, among a lot of citizens, that political action, whether in the electoral realm or the streets, doesn't matter. That sense is not delusion; there's a lot of evidence to suggest that on some fundamentals, it doesn't matter, at least not yet. But you don't change that common sense by repeating it over and over to people. Sometimes, we on the left do that. We forget that when we do, we're not telling the average citizen anything she doesn't already know. We're merely repeating what she does know. And reinforcing her sense that there's really no point in even trying to do anything, whether at the voting booth or in the streets.
It's way too soon to say what I'm about to say, but I'll say it anyway: If this plan of Clinton's does come to pass—again, a big if—it could help, ever so slightly (I stress that ever so slightly), change our sense, if we claim this victory as our own (not as a beneficent handout of an elite neoliberal politician but as a response to real pressure from citizens, particularly younger citizens who have been active in so many social movements these last few years), it could help change our sense of where power lies. It could help more people see what the good activist and the smart organizer already sees: that if we could just possibly get our shit together, we might, sometimes, find power elsewhere. Not power in the abstract, but power to change the concrete terms and conditions of our daily lives.
So here's my new (really, hardly new at all, and actually not mine) political slogan, as we enter a season of (I hope) increasing, if ultimately finite, concessions from the neoliberal state: Take this, demand more, seize all.
Update (6:45 pm)
A hepful Vox piece reports on three other elements of the Clinton college plan that we should not be thrilled about.
What you need to remember—and I had forgotten—is that today's plan builds off the previous plans Clinton has announced. Those plans featured three elements, which, according to this article, will remain in play and will apply to the tuition-free plan:
First, the funding for the tuition-free plan will follow the Obamacare Medicaid expansion model, which—thanks to the Supreme Court—states can refuse to participate in. That's exactly what happened with Republican states. So even within the less than $125k range, this isn't guaranteed to be a universal benefit.
Second, students have to work ten hours a week to get the benefit. That seems like a huge boondoggle of free labor either to the university (which might wind up firing workers) or to local employers (which could do the same). Not to mention that the whole point of taxpayer-financed benefits like this is that you deserve them as a right of citizenship—and pay for them as a taxpayer—and not because you're earning them as a worker.
Okay, so you've got the states, you've got the institutions and you've got the families, and then students who want to take advantage of debt-free tuition have to agree to work 10 hours a week. It's work-study at the college or university, because a couple of public institutions — Arizona State University being a prime example — have lowered their costs by using students for a lot of the work. Yes, it's free. It's in effect in exchange for lower tuition. So I want that to be part of the deal.
And here is a nice primer on what that Arizona State program looks like in practice:
Education at Work (EAW) begins expansion outside Cincinnati, where it was founded, at Arizona State University in an innovative three-way partnership with worldwide online payments system company PayPal. Students working at the non-profit contact center will have the opportunity to earn up to $6,000 a year in GPA-based tax-free tuition assistance in addition to an hourly wage. The students will work as part-time employees in a fast-paced, collaborative contact center environment responding to social media and email inquiries.
Third, colleges and universities have to "work to lower the cost of actually providing the education — by, for instance, experimenting with technology to lower the cost of administration." A link in the piece takes us to an article that elaborates thus:
It's not yet clear what colleges would be required to do about costs in order to participate in the grants, but the adviser mentioned keeping spending on administration in check and using technology to lower the cost of education — for example, making it easier for some students to fulfill some requirements online. (Sebastian Thrun, the founder of Udacity, a provider of free online courses, was one of the advisers on Clinton's plan, according to the campaign.)
The neoliberal state giveth. And the neoliberal taketh—and taketh.
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