College Tuition And The Problem With New Democrats

Recently, Clinton adopted much of Sanders’ college tuition policy. It’s a good start and far better than anything the Republicans would ever do. But the differences between Sanders and Clinton highlight the problems I have with the whole New Democrat approach.

Before we get into the policy, it’s worth remembering that California, until then Governor Ronald Reagan was in office, tuition was free at all UC schools, including the flagship school UC Berkeley (there were some fees that in 2016 terms were around $1,500 per year). Other state universities had ludicrously low rates: University of Texas in 1970 had fees, in 2016 dollars, of $335 and annual in-state tuition of $310. So “free” or nearly free tuition isn’t a radical new idea, it’s an old one, one that was prevalent even in conservative states.

So onto the policy. Clinton’s plan would provide free tuition to households with earnings under $125,000 per year, which would cover roughly eighty percent of households (in 2021). Repayment of loans would be capped as a percentage of annual graduate income, and be discharged after twenty years–less for certain groups (public sector workers, etc.). In addition, students receiving aid will be required to work ten hours per week.

Leaving aside more philosophical debates about education costs as well as the Democratic penchant for negotiating against oursevles, this is going to be a cumbersome program to implement. As I noted about Paul Ryan’s ridiculous welfare proposals:

Essentially, what Paul Ryan wants to do is create a government bureaucracy to monitor these ‘contracts’ (or, maybe monitor the Social Contract?). Conservatives have spent the last forty years railing against this very thing. Of course, people will disagree about whether they hit these ‘benchmarks’, so we’ll need to hire people to adjudicate that process. More ‘big government.’ It also opens people up to the predations and whims of ‘petty government bureaucrats.’ Maybe some will be lenient and kind, others might not. Seems like there are plenty of opportunities for abusing and preying on the needy–which already happens.

When you look at the two of the most successful anti-poverty programs, Social Security and SNAP, they don’t involve a lot of monitoring (SNAP does have some limits on what can be bought). They just disburse money to those who need it. Ryan’s plan isn’t liberalism, it’s liberalism as designed by a fucking moron who hasn’t been paying attention for the last three decades.


Leaving ideology and philosophy of governing aside, these are stupid, cumbersome, and expensive add-ons. The confusion and delays these add-ons cause won’t help the delivery of services. If the primary goal were truly to help people, no one in his right would build programs like this. On the other hand, if one were trying to limit access by undesirables to these programs without explicitly doing so, this is exactly how one would design such a system.

These monitoring systems also offer opportunities for privatization contracts.

Never mind. Mission accomplished.

Admittedly, Ryan is serving evil, but the criticisms are still valid.

Under Clinton’s system, we will need a federal agency to monitor all these requirements (did you serve the public sector for the full ten years or only nine? Did you work ten hours every school week?). What if you drop out for a year or two and then return?

That agency will also have to administer punishments for non-compliance. There will be errors on all sides, and those errors will have to be resolved (as well as being incredibly annoying and distracting). As I noted, this could be privatized as well, only increasing the waste.

It will also open a whole new vista for university administration (WHEEEE!!!!). And it won’t be one person–the Dean of Student Aid Compliance will require an assistant and staff, of course.

As Atrios recently put it (boldface mine):

When I am President Clinton’s Chief of Staff, all of my underlings will be required to have Keep It Simple, Stupid tattooed visibly. I don’t mean the rhetoric and politics. I mean the policies. Stop the tremendous burden required to qualify for measly help that should just be universal anyway. No plans to set up tax incentives to encourage behavior to nudge blah blah. Pre-K? Make it happen. Free public universities? Make it happen.

Because ultimately, it is about who is viewed as the key constituency (boldface mine):

This wrinkle is the fact that the “99%” actually has multiple classes within it. The main division is between the “upper middle” class and various “lower” classes.

At about 10–15% of the population, the upper middle class is made up of doctors, lawyers, university professors, various skilled professionals, and owners of successful local businesses around the country. These people don’t need universal health care, they just need their excellent employer provided health care to have its cost increases managed and they need to not be dropped from health care rolls for preexisting conditions. Their kids don’t need tuition free college, they just need manageable interest rates for their financial aid. They get generous amounts of paid vacation, they don’t need it provided on a mandatory basis. The Democratic Party, in all its incrementalism, tweaking the status quo with modest policy adjustments, represents this class.

Then there are the lower classes. Making up 85–90% percent of the population, this group is the true “working class.” This is the most diverse group in the country, it ranges from “middle class” semi-skilled office workers to truly “lower class” day laborers. While some members live more comfortably than others, this group, by and large, exchanges its labor for just enough money to get by. Their jobs have few, if any, benefits. These people would greatly benefit from policies like universal health care, tuition free public college, mandatory paid time off, and many of the other worker-empowering policies, funded by progressive tax rates, that are standard procedure for most of the developed world outside of the United States. This class has no political party.

The divide between the top 1% and the top 10% makes our political system look competitive, and there are legitimate diverging interests between those two classes. That said, in practice, our two political parties split the vote for the working class, then both ignore it in favor of their primary constituencies. The simple reality of this dynamic is that the majority of the population’s interests go unrepresented.

So it’s a good policy. But it won’t be nearly as effective as it could be–and it will still be ‘expensive’. It’s not like it’s going to save that much money compared to universal tuition–just how many people in the top fifth will attend state schools? It will also help those the least that need it the most.

Better than nothing though.

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