Clinton’s College Plan: Bad Policy Wrapped in Cynical Politics

Hillary Clinton is following in the long Democrat tradition of making popular promises they know are either poor policy or that they won’t have to keep. Of course, their political mastery lies in their ability to later justify their failure to accomplish these promises by blaming Republican intransigence (which, outside of politics, would simply be known as “economic reality”)

The latest example is Clinton’s attempt to win over Bernie Sanders’ youth voters by, um, copying his policy positions, namely his idea for free college tuition. Before you get the warm and fuzzies over a ruthless bureaucrat’s transition into a warmhearted Socialist, keep in mind that this is all done in the furtherance of her political goals. She’s making policy concessions in order to win Sanders’ endorsement, and, to appeal to young voters, a voting bloc that she lost by disastrous margins in the primary.

Clinton is not exactly a stranger to putting her finger to the political winds to see which way they are blowing. But even for a candidate with no discernibly solid principles, this about-face is surprising. Throughout the campaign she’s painted Sanders’ tuition plan as unworkable and too expensive.

“My esteemed opponent, Senator Sanders, has a plan for what he calls ‘free college,’” Clinton told supports in California. “But you know, my late father said, ‘Anytime someone tells you it’s free, read the fine print.’”

Clinton apparently wasn’t too enamored of the fine print. She also characterized his plan as one that “doesn’t make a whole lot of sense” and “doesn’t add up.” Not quite exactly a ringing endorsement.

But math apparently doesn’t seem to matter now, or at least is a secondary concern to a very particular kind of arithmetic: that of the electoral variety. Clinton perceives the need to mollify Sanders and bring his voters into the fold and she’s willing to sell out on some of her ideas in order to achieve those ends. So, on Wednesday, the presumptive Democratic nominee announced her support for a Sanders-like plan to eliminate tuition at all in-state public colleges and universities for any student whose family makes less than $125,000.

Clinton has said that the price tag for her plan is $450 billion over 10 years, a figure that experts say is off base. Haley Edwards reports for TIME:

Education experts, including Barmak Nassirian, the director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, says the Clinton team is probably “gross underestimating” the real cost of implementing her plan as-is.

Considering that public colleges currently bring in roughly $65 billion per year in tuition revenue, Nassirian said, the simple arithmetic would suggest the outlay would run closer $650 billion over 10 years. Even if you exclude as many as 20% of students whose families make more than $125,000 a year, who will still pay tuition under Clinton’s plan, the government would assume 80% of that cost. That’s closer to $520 billion, not $450 billion.

Of course, it will inevitably cost dramatically more than that. Without any downward market pressure by cost-conscious consumers, colleges will have no incentive to keep tuition low. Instead, they’ll simply pass the cost on to the federal government, and by extension, taxpayers. Without the ability to use cost as a differentiator, colleges will inevitably go on a spending spree on superfluities that do little to impact academic achievement, but a lot to drive up the cost of government spending. To the extent that Washington will rebel against the idea of paying ever-more money for stagnant outcomes, it will be forced to insert itself into higher education in an unprecedented way. We will have unwittingly nationalized our college system and eroded what has been one of the United States’ most successful experiments.

And to what end? To completely subsidize the cost of college for many who could afford to pay? As Brian Dickerson wrote in the Detroit Free Press, “[W]e should be wary of schemes that seek to enhance our educational capital by giving it away. Inefficiency is no more virtuous in the name of higher education than in the realms of national defense or public safety.”

Something tells me that Hillary Clinton knows that. She just also knows that there is no chance that these ideas become law, so she’s free to promise the impossible…so long as it is popular.