Why Clinton’s New Tuition-Free Plan Matters

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.

John Protevi pointed out to me that in her famous Daily News interview, Clinton gave us a sense of what she had in mind:

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.

Go PayPal!

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.


  1. Don't Kill the Liberal Arts July 6, 2016 at 2:12 pm | #

    Let’s just hope this doesn’t mean bringing new efficiencies to higher ed such as online classes and MOOCs (the former, I might add, is far more costly than f2f if done responsibly), or a renewed attack on liberal arts degrees as unworthy of taxpayer support. I worry that the Gates Foundation and our neo-liberal friends will double-down on their push to remake universities into job training self-help videos. We still need to be vigilant.

  2. Say it with me, people!

  3. xenon2 July 6, 2016 at 2:26 pm | #

    I haven’t been paying much attention to ‘Free College’,
    but why can’t it begin right away? Suppose you are the
    parent of a high school student. You’re screwed.

    Taxes are still very low in the city.
    Why not raise them?

    I can remember when there was no tuition at Brooklyn College.
    I should have gone there.

    • CityDweller July 6, 2016 at 2:39 pm | #

      Would love to know in what world taxes are very low in the city. 6k a year in property taxes for a 1600sqft home in the boroughs is not what I’d call low.

      • xenon2 July 6, 2016 at 8:26 pm | #

        I pay many times that amount, but almost 60% of my property taxes go for public schools.
        I did not chose to live here.It was an accident, born out of circumstance, a small town of <2,000.

        We have 'good' schools, but not great.I want great schools for everyone, teachers to make
        what engineers and doctors make.I want teachers to come from top of the class, not the middle.
        I want our elementary and high schools to be so good, that all parents will flock to them.

        As far as sf goes, it's a sad situation when all you have to pay is $200 for a $2M house. The gross inequality
        you find in sf, is reflected in the fact that the public schools are unthinkable for the elite.

  4. Xor (@CartoonDiablo) July 6, 2016 at 3:46 pm | #

    On an even brighter side, despite it being means-tested that still covers 77% of Americans.

  5. Tom Shapiro July 6, 2016 at 4:13 pm | #

    Roosevelt passed Social Security with a funding plan that gave future recipients a real sense that the trust fund belonged to them. I believe if it had been funded by general revenue through income tax, it would have disappeared between the Eisenhower and Reagan administrations. Assuming a million 18 year old citizens enter 13th grade per year and graduate in 4 years, free college education at a inflation adjusted net cost of 20,000 dollars a year

    per student will cost 2 billion dollars a year. 1 million bachelors degrees every 4 years comes to 8 billion dollars. In a 1.5 trillion federal budget that is almost pocket change but how to fund it so that it is invulnerable to tax policy is critical. What is your proposal?.

  6. JAMES_SCAMINACI_III_PHD July 6, 2016 at 4:37 pm | #

    I see that as a positive development and proof that Bernie holding out for transformative policies is having an effect. That said, I voice two criticisms. One, I fail to see why it would not start until a second term in 2021? That is just the same mistake Obama made with ACA. I think you push it to start before the school term in 2018–just before the mid-term elections when millions of families see a real benefit. Two, $125,000 is a lot of money, but there are families still struggling with that income. I would take away the means-test. I don’t care if the children of billionaires get a free public college education. Make it universal. Or race to the top one percent or one-tenth of one percent.

    Corey makes an important point about seeing your taxes work. I lived for 18 years in Europe, five in Finland. Yes, takes were higher than in the U.S. But, the education system was world class and everybody knows it. Its healthcare system is world class, and treatment for cancer, did not put a family anywhere near bankruptcy. In fact, an entire bone marrow transplant, start to finish, was a couple of thousand Euros, and much of that reimbursed by private insurance. The public transportation system was great. Small businesses were everywhere. Every Finn could see that their tax Euros were being spent on tangible, first-class results. In America? I came back to live in the SF Bay Area and had to dodge craters on the freeway.

  7. Joel in Oakland July 6, 2016 at 5:52 pm | #

    My understanding is that means testing social security is dumb (except for the political talking points), because it’ll cost the gov’t more than it saves. That won’t apply to this case, since the people who benefit (guess should say “most”) won’t have their taxes raised more than their benefits.

    It also seems like better politics – better appeal to working class repubs. “Free” seems to trigger their reflexive/conditioned anger, while a focus on today’s graduates’ debt issues and showing that this is a “responsible” way to deal with this very large crisis is likely to play better with the kids’ debt issues in “Peoria”.

    And, of course, if a “big step forward” doesn’t immediately sell, it’s a pretty good club to beat the G.O.P with – if the dems know what they’re doing (by no means obvious)

    And, of course, as much evisceration of the Karl Rove – Rupert Murdoch – Roger Aisles propaganda machine as possible needs to happen at this point where it appears to be backed into a corner. The corporate wing of the dems doesn’t seem to care much about that, but they seem to be staying out of the way, so far. Or at least I hope they are. Let’s not forget, though, that they’re the ones with the money needed to run down-ticket races. Eventually, the country will follow our example here in CA, where the GOP has become mostly an afterthought after being a dominant force for decades – because of also having become the dominant force for gridlock. Hope I live to see it.

  8. jonnybutter July 6, 2016 at 7:21 pm | #

    Means testing is a bad idea, for reasons stated above e.g. yes, if SS had been a means tested program, it would be gone by now. Bet on it.

    I respectfully disagree with Joel about the politics of the universal benefit. Frankly, I am tired of the argument that Dems always have to *react* to ‘the politics’. Conservatives not only act rather than react, but they also stick with it for the long haul. That’s why they have dominated US politics for 35+ years. The ‘politics’ of their platform is *terrible*.

    Why is it that so many liberals with no talent for – or even really interest in – politics, go into it? (Not a rhetorical question, btw! Why?) You don’t even need to be particularly charismatic to be effective, particularly at a time like this. But you should know your own mind and be able to explain it.

    Kids from rich families should be able to go to state schools for free too, because they pay for it too. Even more, rich families’ kids have lots of choices other than public U. A fair number of them will not go to any public school their whole lives, just as it is now.

    See? Not that hard.

    Yes, so important that people see themselves getting something for the taxes they pay! I have heard even well-educated, well-off reactionaries make the same point, comparing US unfavorably to EU (“At least you get something for your taxes in Europe!”).

  9. jonnybutter July 6, 2016 at 8:23 pm | #

    Just read the update. Can’t say I’m surprised it turns out to be such a stupid mess (as is Obamacare, frankly). It’s still good she thinks she should be for something. “Hillary heard you”. (robot voice) THANKS HILLARY.

    BTW, I think the 10 hours a week is not there mainly to finance anything; it’s just to make people suffer. Ya know, the ‘politics’. And these fucking people have an aversion to entitlements – except for themselves – anyway.

  10. SK Figler July 6, 2016 at 8:59 pm | #


  11. mischling2nd July 6, 2016 at 9:27 pm | #

    Clinton’s corporate wing of the Democratic Party exists to promise working class Americans a lot and deliver very little. That’s the plan and always will be.

  12. Marta Krawczyk July 6, 2016 at 9:53 pm | #

    Well, the truth is that the proposal of this plan comes as a result of our ‘crazy’ Bernie being stubborn and firmly refusing to endorse Clinton despite being bullied by the est Dems… He,?Bernie, is REALLY fighting for we the ppl… We not gonna get another Bernie like this any time soon again- if ever… Bernies like this are extremely rare political animals?…

  13. Will G-R July 6, 2016 at 10:20 pm | #

    “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.”

    I forget which of his lectures it was from or if it’s one of his standard quips, but I remember a video of Yanis Varoufakis where he wonderfully expressed a similar sentiment: “I stand here as an unapologetic leftist, but I know that if I were living in the old Eastern Bloc, I would be in the gulag and someone like Hillary Clinton would be in the Politburo.” It’s a very Arendtian “banality of evil” type of lesson, that on some level opportunist personal ambition and brown-nosing cut across all modern administrative bureaucracies, no matter what the ideological or “non-ideological” (as if such a thing exists) form of their self-justification. Even Stalin didn’t seize power by writing groundbreaking new works of historical materialist analysis or by heroically defeating the armies of bourgeois reaction on the revolutionary battleground, he did it by easing into an unobtrusive upper-management position and cultivating a personal network of mid-level administrators with incentives to see him advance, exactly the way any 21st-century corporate or political consultant would have told him to.

  14. Rolf Wiegand July 7, 2016 at 12:27 am | #

    Youth rallied to Sanders not because of his proposal to eliminate college tuition but because he told the truth every time he spoke — he’s been doing that all his life.
    Adopting Sanders’ free college plank won’t get Clinton the Sanders supporters; and she surely isn’t going to shed her skin and start speaking honestly this late in the game.
    So she’s in a bit of a jam.

  15. mark July 7, 2016 at 4:05 am | #

    My OED has ‘servitor’ glossed as archaic.

  16. Roquentin July 7, 2016 at 10:30 am | #

    Why they make it so needlessly complex is beyond me. This does feel a lot like Obamacare, a botched mess which does very little of what it was supposed to. People like this are so intent on jamming a square peg into a round hole. They want to use the existing system to solve the contradictions within it, something which simply put is not possible. The working 10 hours thing is just bizarre.

    I’m still planning on voting Green in November, for what it’s worth. NY will never go to Trump, so I don’t want to hear any nonsense about how it’s allowing him to win. No it isn’t. NY isn’t a swing state.

  17. Steve White July 20, 2016 at 4:03 pm | #

    A century ago Virginia Woolf made a very similar argument in “A Room of One’s Own”. Access to high quality college education is the gateway to economic equality.

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