There's a growing agreement among Democratic policymakers on college costs. The consensus is that state spending cuts are the reason college tuition has skyrocketed for most students, and the solution is for the federal government to step in.
But some skepticism is coming from an unlikely corner: public college presidents.
Tuesday night, I sat down to dinner with 10 university presidents, eight from large public universities. As we talked about the cost and value of college, they emphasized that state spending cuts are a major reason tuition has gone up sharply in the past few years.
But when I asked if anyone supported the federal government subsidizing public higher education to make up for those state cuts, as both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have proposed, not a single president's hand went up.
Of course, this is an anecdote, not data. There are more than 600 four-year public universities in the United States, and so far there hasn't been a comprehensive survey of what most presidents think of Sanders and Clinton's proposals.
Still, the response was telling. The presidents at the dinner — which included the leaders of Arizona State, Texas Tech, the University of California Riverside, Georgia Tech, Georgia State, the University of South Carolina, and the University of Kansas, as well as Bennington College and the Worcester Polytechnic Institute — said they feared more federal money could come with increased federal control. And they're right. Those ideas are baked into Clinton and Sanders's plans.
The recession devastated public higher education
Public colleges are caught in a vicious budget trap. State budgets ebb and flow with the economy. When times are good, states have more money to spend. But higher education is countercyclical: When the economy is bad, more people want to go to college; when times are good, enrollments fall again.
That means that just as states have less money to spend on public higher education, more students are showing up. The most recent recession had a devastating impact. All but three states are still spending less per student than they did in 2007, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. On average, states are spending 20 percent less per student today than eight years ago.
Meanwhile, tuition has gone up 29 percent. At public universities, students and families now bear almost half the burden of paying for their education. Most college students attend public universities, and the funding cuts and tuition increases are one reason student debt has grown so much.
As the economy has gotten better and enrollments have dropped, states are starting to spend more per student again. But it's unlikely that those modest increases are going to make up the damage wrought by the recession. At best, they'll hold the line.
Democrats increasingly want to help states fill the gap
Democrats have concluded that states aren't going to step up and start funding higher education they way they used to. And instead of allowing tuition to continue to rise, they think it's time the federal government played a larger role. Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders want the federal government to step in and help fill the chasm the recession left in higher education budgets.
President Obama fought to increase federal spending on financial aid, and some members of Congress have proposed a "maintenance of effort" requirement for higher education, meaning that states that get federal funds wouldn't be able to cut their higher education budgets. But Clinton and Sanders are calling for a much bigger shift in who directly subsidizes public higher education.
Sanders wants the federal government to pay two-thirds of the cost of eliminating tuition at public universities, paid for by a tax on stock trades. States would be required to kick in the remaining one-third, while also maintaining their current spending on higher education.
Clinton, meanwhile, wants to create a $175 billion grant program over 10 years to encourage states to lower tuition enough that students could afford it without taking on debt.
Both plans would create a new role for the federal government in helping students afford college. Right now, federal financial aid is a voucher system: Pell Grants and student loans go to students, not directly to colleges. Colleges get plenty of money directly from the federal government in other ways, particularly research funding. But the federal government has never directly subsidized tuition at public universities.
College presidents want none of it
College presidents, like most people in academia, are generally politically liberal. (In 2012, more than 75 percent said in a survey by Gallup and Inside Higher Ed that they were voting for Obama.) But when it comes to federal higher education policy, they don't respond like Democratic partisans. They act like any other industry the government is trying to regulate.
While Obama has supported expanding federal spending on higher education, he's also pushed colleges to prove they're giving their money's worth. The federal government has released data on college students' earnings later in life, and Obama initially wanted to link federal financial aid to those outcomes. And the federal government has applied other kinds of pressure as well, including putting more scrutiny on how colleges handle sexual assault and harassment.
College presidents fear that if the federal government starts paying for all students' education at public universities, more federal requirements will follow. Arizona has suffered deeper cuts than most other states, and seen larger tuition increases. The state has 41 percent less in per-student funding than in 2007. But Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, said he was skeptical about direct federal funding: "What does it come with?" he asked.
It comes with strings attached. In Clinton's case, that includes a requirement that colleges and universities do more to control their costs — an accusation that stings public universities, which argue that they did cut some types of spending during the recession while trying to maintain educational quality.
The presidents said they'd rather states restore their previous levels of funding and the previous balance of power: States keep college affordable for the typical family, and the federal government helps, with grants, students who still can't afford it.
"Turning the funding of public institutions over to the federal government is a recipe for disaster," said G.P. "Bud" Peterson, the president of Georgia Tech. "I just think the states have the authority, they have the ability, they have the resources, and it's just a matter of each state trying to determine its priorities."
But although states have started to restore federal higher education funding, that's probably not likely to happen. Most state legislatures are controlled by Republicans who generally want to cut government spending, not expand it.
Even if Clinton or Sanders is elected, it's unlikely a Republican-controlled Congress would do much to pass their plans. But the presidents' responses were a reminder that the politics of higher education is complicated, and that colleges are increasingly aware that federal money comes with federal responsibility as well.