Liberals care about higher education — a lot. It's long been a top-tier issue of the left, from the construction of state universities decades ago to the Occupy Wall Street protests of this decade. So it's no surprise that Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has made higher education policy a major plank in his left-wing primary challenge to Hillary Clinton.
Higher education ought to be considered a "right," Sanders said in an interview with The Huffington Post. Similarly, he has previously argued for large increases in government tuition assistance. By upping federal aid by $18 billion, matched by states, all Americans could effectively have two years of free college at public universities across the nation.
Sanders' goals are laudable in many ways. However, such a proposal is less left-wing than it might appear, and the language of "rights" is politically problematic. It's very easy for free college to be effectively regressive, so any such program should be part of a broad program of material security.
Now, Sanders is undoubtedly correct in many things. First, he is right that the number one driver of rising costs at public schools is declining support from state governments. More and more, public schools are funded through tuition (rather undermining the whole "public" nature), which is increasingly obtained by going into debt. Sanders is also right to point to this skyrocketing debt as a major economic drag in an era of stagnant or declining wages for graduates, especially given the utterly unjustifiable fact that it's very difficult to discharge that debt during bankruptcy proceedings.
However, the most important fact about higher education is that only a minority of people go to college. Though the proportion of people with a college degree has been rising for a long time, as of 2012, only about 40 percent of the population held a two-year degree or higher. That 40 percent, of course, overwhelmingly overlaps with the upper 40 percent of America's income distribution.
The upshot here is that free college will inexorably tend to benefit the rich disproportionately, both because wealthy people are vastly more likely to go to college, and because a college degree sharply increases their earning potential. (Ironically, as I can personally testify, high prices can actually benefit the poor sometimes, through need-based aid funded by wealthy students' tuition.)
Does that mean free college is always bad? Not necessarily. A two-year plan, as Sanders roughly sketched out, is a better one, because poorer people who do attend college typically go to two-year community colleges or similarly abbreviated programs. His funding mechanism might be improved, though. Income-based repayment, wherein college is free at the point of access, but one must pay a percentage of one's income for a number of years afterward, would be egalitarian, progressive, and have universal access. But insofar as the focus is on provision for the actually needy, and not on the prestigious four-year colleges that get the vast majority of media attention, Sanders' plan is to the good.
This brings me to how the benefit is sold. Even four years of free college can be part of a social democracy, but it requires a lot of countervailing institutions to make up for the regressive nature. As Matt Bruenig points out, in Sanders' beloved Nordic nations, which do have universally free college, it's perceived as the part of the welfare state that binds the rich into the general social fabric. It's harder for an incipient plutocrat to argue his fortune is 100 percent the result of his hard work alone if society paid for his school.
But Sanders' framing of higher education as a "right" does not really comport with this sort of general responsibility thinking. On the contrary, as was unfortunately common during the Occupy Wall Street protests, statements were often framed around personal entitlement to jobs or a lack of debt. That's an understandable thought from people struggling to make it with a huge debt burden, but at root it's more of a complaint about lack of access to the system rather than a criticism of the unjust system itself.
For all the real pain suffered by people graduating in the teeth of the financial crisis (as I did in 2008, I remember it well), there were many others who had it dramatically worse. So whether we think of college as a right or not, basic material security for all people is surely a greater priority. Given their inherently regressive nature, free college programs always ought to be part of a such a program, not a standalone right.