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Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders' argument about college costs, explained

Sanders and Clinton during the debate Tuesday night.
Sanders and Clinton during the debate Tuesday night.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

Bernie Sanders wants to make college tuition free. Hillary Clinton is worried that would subsidize college for Donald Trump's kids.

Both Clinton and Sanders are to the left of Obama on higher education. But there are still big differences between Clinton's plan for "debt-free tuition" and Sanders's plan for "free tuition."

This disagreement got a public airing during the Democratic debate on Saturday night. The difference between the two candidates' plans is an important one, and one that sets the two Democratic contenders apart.

Clinton and Sanders both want the federal government to subsidize tuition

Obama speaks at UC-Irvine graduation ceremony

Clinton and Sanders are both to Obama's left on higher education. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images News)

President Obama's higher education policies have generally focused on helping students who can't afford their student loans after graduation rather than tackling the cost of the tuition they pay.

That's what both Clinton and Sanders have proposed doing. Both of their plans would partially federalize public colleges and universities and give the federal government a larger role in determining tuition rates. That's a big difference from how the federal government has traditionally tried to make college affordable, through grants to low-income students and student loans.

Sanders would create a federal grant program to cover two-thirds of tuition, with states kicking in the remaining third — making tuition free at all public universities.

"It is insane to my mind, hundreds of thousands of young people today, bright qualified people, cannot go to college because they cannot afford, their families cannot afford to send them," Sanders said Saturday night.

Clinton would create a grant program available to states that set tuition levels so that students could graduate without having to take out loans in order to afford it. She believes tuition should be set so that students and families don't have to borrow in order to pay a cost that's beyond their means, but that it's not unreasonable to ask families to pay a price they can afford for higher education.

"I don't believe in free tuition for everybody," Clinton said Saturday. "I believe we should focus on middle-class families, working families and poor kids who have the ambition and the talent to go to college and get ahead."

The big difference between "free" and "debt-free"

There are two criticisms of proposals for free college. The first is that they're not generous enough to the poor; the second is that they're too generous toward the wealthy.

The first criticism revolves around the fact that sometimes tuition isn't the highest cost of college. At community colleges, the hidden costs of attending college while working less than full-time — books, food, rent, child care — are much more expensive than the actual tuition. At public universities, room and board can cost almost as much as tuition.

This is why, although many proponents of free college are worried about student debt, simply lowering tuition to zero wouldn't be enough to get rid of it. In Sweden, where tuition is free, students still accumulate about $19,000 in student debt during their time in college in order to pay living expenses.

Sanders's plan for free college doesn't include getting rid of financial aid programs that already exist, so students could use Pell Grants no longer needed to pay for tuition in order to afford living expenses. Still, it's difficult to get rid of student debt entirely.

The second criticism of free college is that it isn't truly progressive: Because students who go to college and pay the most to attend now are overwhelmingly middle-class or wealthier, they argue, free college is essentially a government giveaway to richer Americans. The answer to making college more affordable and accessible to low-income people is to strengthen the way the system already is supposed to work: charging families different prices based on what they can afford.

Students from families making less than $30,000 per year paid nothing, on average, in tuition and fees at public colleges in 2012. Students from families making more than $106,000 paid $8,346. Making tuition free wouldn't change anything for the poorest college students, but it would help wealthier ones avoid a big tuition bill.

"Making college free for everyone would almost certainly mean giving far more money to students from richer families than from poorer ones," Matt Bruenig wrote in a critique of free college for Dissent magazine. In addition, because college graduates make more than high school graduates, students with a college degree are on track to fare better throughout their lives; giving them such a large public benefit, Bruenig suggested, was a "deeply suspicious idea."

This is what Clinton was alluding to at a town hall in October when she suggested Donald Trump's children could be the biggest beneficiaries of a free tuition plan like Sanders's.

This argument is revealing because it's really about the welfare state


Sanders wants a broader social safety net like the Nordic countries of Europe. (Shutterstock)

Supporters of free college don't argue about whether their plans would benefit the poor more than the rich. They argue for looking at the bigger picture: that a college education, which is increasingly necessary for economic success, should be as free and accessible as K-12 education. Good, free public schools in the suburbs obviously benefit some wealthy families who otherwise would send their children to private schools, but nobody argues in favor of getting rid of them on those grounds.

Sanders often talks about making the US more like the social democracies of northern Europe, which typically don't charge tuition in college. In those countries, higher education is just one part of a broader net of welfare benefits that are much more generous than in the US.

Free college tuition, like government-provided health insurance, is one way the welfare state applies to everyone — not just the poor. That's what Sanders meant when he defended his plan by saying the wealthy would also be paying more taxes under his presidency: Free college isn't meant to be analyzed as a benefit in isolation.

Clinton's plan doesn't go that far. She's in favor of free community college, but has argued that students should have to work to bear part of their costs at a four-year college because they're getting part of the benefit of a college education. "Maybe it's because I worked when I went through college, I worked when I went through law school," she said at the first Democratic presidential debate in October. "I think it's important for everybody to have some part of getting this accomplished."

Clinton, in other words, wants to go back to an earlier time, when college tuition was set much more affordably. Sanders wants to rethink the relationship between government and higher education much more thoroughly.