In her effort to attract Bernie Sanders supporters, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton veered leftward during the primary season and has stayed there. Her proposal for “free” college tuition is a prime example.

Early in her campaign, Clinton talked of the need to make higher education “debt free” for students. In time, however, after watching Sanders draw big crowds filled with younger voters, she adopted the idea of making tuition costs free. On the stump, she has recounted how she was able to use loans to get through law school and could afford her loan repayments despite a job that paid just $14,000 annually.

Today, Clinton says, too many students get out of college facing crushing debt, and her plan is intended to ease that burden. She has proposed having low- and middle-income students pay nothing for tuition at in-state public colleges in 2017 if their families earn less than $85,000 per year. That baseline would gradually increase to $125,000 in 2021.

Yet few things are ever “free,” of course, and this wouldn’t be for taxpayers. Estimates are that paying for Clinton’s program would require about $500 billion in new spending over 10 years. Or put another way, half a trillion dollars.

The cost is one thing that should make Americans think twice about this feel-good idea. Another is the fact that if enacted, it might not wind up benefiting the students Clinton is aiming at.

Writing recently at The Hechinger Report, Manhattan Institute senior fellow Max Eden noted that eliminating tuition costs would almost certainly result in higher enrollment. But doing so would also make public colleges and universities more dependent on taxpayer funding. “If taxpayer generosity lags behind cost increases,” Eden wrote, “colleges will be forced to either ration access or decrease the quality of their educational offerings, undercutting the hope that free college will lead to more students receiving degrees.”

Eden also wrote about what occurred in Britain a number of years ago, when England decided to raise the cap on tuition and fees, while Scotland did away with student tuition. Tuition in England rose by 87 percent from 2006 to 2012, but without the need to ration access, the country saw enrollment grow by 20 percent “and applicants from the most disadvantaged backgrounds grow by 53 percent.” Scotland’s enrollment rates among low-income students grew one-tenth as quickly, Eden said.

“This may be because while tuition was made free, students still had to pay for living expenses, and grant aid to defray overall costs for low-income Scottish students fell to half the value offered in England,” he wrote.

Eden argues that making tuition free would benefit middle- and upper-income families, while providing no economic benefit to low-income students and leaving them saddled with several thousands of dollars in room and board costs.

Ultimately, a free-tuition program would require a hefty public investment but might not help the prospects of low-income students. Eden suggests the wiser approach would be to focus on such things as grant aid for low-income students, reforming student loan repayment to lower a students’ financial risk, and giving schools a financial stake in whether students are able to pay back their debt.

“Creating high-quality higher education opportunities is far more important to students than making tuition free,” Eden wrote.

Maybe so, but Clinton is all-in on the latter. For her, it’s easier to simply pitch this “free” entitlement and hope it pays off in November.


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