As if written by the hand of FDR himself, Hillary Clinton’s New College Compact (NCC) bears all the hallmarks of a traditional leftist program: an elevated, catchy title with an intonation of novelty; an electorally motivated proposal that is outrageously expensive; and a rather superficial and unworkable solution to a legitimate policy concern.
The proposal itself requires the federal government and local state governments to introduce a combined investment fund that will cover the full cost of tuition, books, living expenses, and fees for four-year public college students from households that net under $125,000 a year, with community college students receiving full tuition benefits. Clinton’s website further promotes this compact with the two broad assurances that costs will not act as a barrier to tuition and that debt will not “hold you back.” The Clinton campaign estimates the NCC will cost “in the range of” $350 billion over the next 10 years.
The first quirk about the NCC is its origin. As some media have noted, the NCC is Senator Bernie Sanders’ college plan with a different marketing team. This is instructive on two points. First, the NCC is yet another attempt of the Clinton campaign to lock down Sanders voters. These overtures to the Bernie base are essential, as both major candidates scrap for the unaccounted-for body of votes. 44 percent of primary votes in West Virginia, for example, indicated that Donald Trump would be their next candidate of choice after Bernie Sanders. Thus, while Trump continues to work his rhetoric on considering a minimum wage hike and other more Democratic policy proposals, the NCC offers unsatisfied Democratic voters an actual policy position to scrutinize and, Clinton hopes, woo them to her camp.
However, the history of the Bernie college plan suggests that Clinton realizes her own plan is unworkable. Clinton lambasted the Bernie plan by reminding the senator from Vermont that requiring governors to provide state funding for the plan was unlikely—a reasonable critique. It would be hard to imagine Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, who cut $250 million from the University of Wisconsin’s budget, suddenly providing state funds to fully cover students’ tuition. That Clinton could make this accurate prediction last year yet still employ the same policy as part of her platform this year reveals that the NCC ought to be interpreted as a specific sop to a concerned voter class. If Trump’s wall proposal is tossing red meat, Clinton’s NCC is the redistribution of blue orthodoxy.
Moreover, the complete subsidization of public universities is not a desirable goal. Diana Furchtgott-Roth, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and former chief economist at the U.S. Department of Labor, made the case in November of 2015 that the “European model of expanded benefits” called for by both Sanders and Clinton would necessitate a meteoric rise in payroll and value-added taxes. Using the European model, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development estimates the European average payroll tax at 26 percent, compared to the United States’ payroll tax level of 16 percent. Accompanied by a similar rise in sales tax, such a plan could never come to fruition. The required tax increases for complete public university coverage would be politically impossible to achieve. Further, as Furchtgott-Roth notes, advocates for “free” university education miss the larger point that the whole population should not subsidize education for some. Education is properly understood as an investment in oneself for the achievement of higher future earnings. As Clinton herself opined last November, “I disagree with free college for everybody. I don’t think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college.”
The worst aspect of the NCC is in what it doesn’t achieve. There is a real problem in the United States of high university tuition being forfeited to bloated university administrations that use tuition money to establish value narratives among students rather than provide them with a balanced and enriching education. The NCC’s work requirement turns individuals into laborers rather than students, incentivizing public education over the often-better investment opportunity offered by private institutions. Sanders can claim a victory for having pushed the establishment Democrat to the left, and Clinton will probably be successful in luring some with the NCC’s false promises. However, for those who, like myself, care about seriously rethinking the financing of higher education, the NCC leaves us wanting.
James Parsons is an incoming senior at Fordham University.