For the second time in as many primary debates, Hillary Clinton launched an attack on the notion of free public higher education. Her rival, Senator Bernie Sanders, has proposed a plan to make public universities free, by way of reducing student debt and creating more opportunities for would-be students in the U.S.
While Clinton has her own policies for addressing student debt (and while Sanders’ policy prescriptions are imperfect), she has mocked and attacked the principle of free public universities. Her line of attack thus far—calculated to win cheap applause—has been to say that the taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for Donald Trump’s kids to go to university.
There are, needless to say, some problems with this line of reasoning. And the problems with this reasoning shed light on an even larger problem, at least for those of us resigned to seeing the Democratic Party as our best institutional tool at the national level for trying to make the U.S. a more equal and just society. Hillary Clinton, the candidate who many want to lead that party into a national election next year, either doesn’t understand something as elementary as a social contract and what makes a public institution public, or else is seeking to undermine and un-do public institutions.
At a first glance, there seems to be something just and logical about claiming that the taxpayers—a term that brings to mind middle class families—should pay to send Donald Trump’s kids to school. These “taxpayers,” after all, might very well be struggling, and by his own admission, Donald Trump is a very, very rich man.
But Donald Trump is also a taxpayer. And based on his wealth, he is a taxpayer who should be contributing enough to the public education system to pay not only for his own kids, but for a great many other people’s kids to attend public university for free under the kind of plan envisioned by Sanders.
That’s what a public good ought to be. A service—like university—provided at no cost to members of society irrespective of their parents’ wealth through contributions from the taxpayers. Needless to say—although clearly Hillary Clinton does need to hear this—those contributions are proportionate to the wealth of individual taxpayers.
In the first debate, Clinton bragged about working when she went to college, and said “I think it’s important for everyone to have some part of getting this accomplished,” adding that she “would like to see students work 10 hours a week.”
This demonstrates another series of misunderstandings on Clinton’s part, in part about the cyclical nature of the social contract, and in part about the changes in higher education that have occurred since she was a student.
The notion of a cross-generational social contract, that underpins the historic principles of free education and other features of welfare states that enhance the lives of their citizens means that people make the most substantial contributions to the maintenance of public goods and institutions when they have the ability to do so. When they are younger or older, those requirements wane, and then they are supported by older or younger generations who have taken over as the primary economic contributors to the public welfare.
Therefore, although in a system of truly public higher education (wherein the taxpaying public supports qualified students to attend university at low or ideally no cost) students are not paying tuition and fees to “have some part of getting this accomplished” (as Clinton elegantly put it), they will, later in life, contribute towards the “free” education of others.
Thus, everyone is playing their part, just at different points in their lives. And if Donald Trump’s kids were able to attend a public university for free, that would be because their father was paying significantly, through his taxes, into a system of public higher education, along with other taxpayers, whose contributions would be proportional to their income and other earnings.
The second problem is with Clinton’s “I worked through college, while walking uphill through snowstorms—both ways!” comment. Using her experience from the mid-1960s to make intelligent commentary on public policy 50 years later is tin-eared and in this case more than a little silly.
When Clinton was a university student (at a private university), tuition at the country’s preeminent system of higher education, the University of California, was $0. Today, tuition at the University of California runs at over $12,000, with an estimated total annual cost of over $30,000. Hillary Clinton, in other words, is speaking as a member of a generation who benefited tremendously from a massive investment in truly public higher education.
So having benefited from a generous social contract, and generations of taxpayers who invested in giving their generation free access to the world’s best universities, and the opportunities and economic advantages associated with that attendance, Clinton’s generation, and politicians like Clinton, have kicked away the latter, and are asking today’s generations of students to make significant contributions to paying their own way at a time in their lives when they are economically vulnerable, and are asking them to take on significant workloads.
I understand that in the eyes of many, there is virtue associated with work. Work is good for its own sake, and working while going to college is a sign of strength and responsibility.
I also understand, as someone who has been teaching university students for six years, that asking students to work significant hours while they study is a really bad idea. Students become distracted, their studies take a back seat, they become overwhelmed by the work, and they miss out on the opportunity to take a few years of their lives to think and learn systematically in an environment designed to foster and support critical thinking. They miss out on opportunities for research that will make them more competitive on the job market and more proficient at the skills they are honing as they study. They will miss out on the opportunities to associate with people from other places who have other perspectives. Asking students to stretch their finite energies and time between work and study—particularly when we have, in the past found ways to ensure that this didn’t have to be the case—undermines many of the benefits associated with higher education.
Hillary Clinton is very clearly not stupid. She knows how the social contract works. She understands what public institutions are. She must know something about the experience of students in today’s poorly-funded and costly public universities.
So I can only conclude, in light of her comments, that she doesn’t support the traditional social contract between generations, and doesn’t believe in truly public institutions.
That’s fine. Those are legitimate if ultimately unfortunate and misguided political positions. But Hillary Clinton, while adopting these regressive positions, is casting herself as a leading progressive, and is competing in the primary of a party ostensibly committed to the defense of public institutions.
So Clinton’s attacks on public higher education, her deceitful rhetoric, and her repudiation of the social contract, are further evidence of her hypocrisy and further evidence that she is advocating a right-wing approach to public policy that is the last thing the U.S. needs at this stage. All those voters, from whichever party, who are committed to public higher institutions, a fair social contract between the generations, and public institutions at large, should turn away from Clinton and the Republicans, and take a more serious look at Bernie Sanders, the candidate who is unafraid to discuss the benefits of a generous, healthy welfare state.