Saturday night’s Democratic Presidential debate didn’t exactly involve the made-for-TV adventures that have marked the Republican primary and its four (not including the kids’ table!) debates thus far. Even the time slot—Saturday night—of the debate seemed to hint at the relative stability between the three remaining candidates for the Democratic nomination.
But despite the lack of campaign fireworks, the debate allowed for a few more nuanced distinctions between Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley and an opportunity to go a bit deeper on policy and power (something that a field of three, rather than a rolling number between 8-16, allows).
I’ve noted elsewhere that a striking piece of this Democratic primary is the consensus among the candidates on substantially lowering the price students pay to attend public colleges. The cleavage between the candidates at this point seems to be Senator Sanders’ insistence on a universal benefit of tuition-free college, and the plans laid out by Secretary Clinton and Governor O’Malley, which seek to provide pathways to degrees that require no borrowing.
Here are three quotes that encapsulate the slight distinction between the three:
Sanders: “I want those kids to know that if they study hard, they do their homework, regardless of the income of their families, they will in fact be able to get a college education because we are going to make public colleges and universities tuition-free. This is revolutionary for education in America. It will give hope to millions of young people.”
O’Malley: “I respectfully disagree with Senator Sanders' approach. I believe that the goal should be debt-free college. I believe that our Federal Government needs to do more on pell grants. States need to stop cutting higher education, and we should create a new block grant program that keeps the states' skin in the game…”
Clinton: “I believe that we should make community college free. We should have debt-free college if you go to a public college or university. You should not have to borrow a dime to pay tuition. I want to use pell grants to help defray the living expenses that often make a difference, whether a young person can stay in school or not. I disagree with free college for everybody. I don't think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump's kids to college. I think it ought to be a compact -- families contribute, kids contribute.”
Despite the distinction between debt-free and tuition-free at four-year colleges – effectively, the Clinton and Sanders plans treat community college the exact same – and the willingness to subsidize extremely wealthy families, each candidate’s theory of the problem and mechanism to fix it are basically the same: States have divested and need to increase their higher education funding, and where they cannot, the federal government should provide incentives and matching funds. Under each plan, Pell Grants would also be maintained and expanded to defray living costs for low-income students, and it would be paid for through various means of taxing wealthy households.
But somewhat lost in all of this debate is an examination of who has debt-free college right now. After all, not every student who completes a degree borrows – even though we know from our research that borrowing at public colleges is stratified along racial and class lines. So with that in mind, I analyzed the differences between borrowers and non-borrowers among public 4-year graduates – given that each candidate’s plan would seek to reduce or eliminate the need to take on debt at these institutions:
As you might expect, debt-free graduates come from families with substantially higher income. Almost half of non-borrowers (46.7%) come from families making $100,000 or more a year, and almost all of them receive financial help from their parents. Meanwhile, those who borrow for a bachelor’s at public colleges are much more likely to come from families making around or below the median household income.
This is a bit of a blunt analysis, since this only includes students who complete degrees, but I think it actually understates the fundamental difference between those who have to borrow and those who do not. First, we know that debt levels above $10,000 are negatively associated with completing college—meaning that those who have to borrow are getting to the finish line at lower rates—and that financial difficulties are the number one reason cited for dropping out. Second, as anyone who comes from a middle- or upper-middle class family can attest, the expectation of help from parents to pay for most or all of a college degree is a powerful driver of going in the first place (and contributes to a continual stratification in college-going between high- and low-income students), or having the option to attend a private non-profit college.
Secretary Clinton touched on this dynamic when she claimed, “I don't think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump's kids to college.” There are upsides (the targeting of resources at those who need it) and downsides (the maintenance of a more complex system that determines a family’s ability to pay) to this approach. Politically, Clinton’s point may or may not land, but it’s important to understand the larger context underpinning it: a fairly large group of wealthy families can send their children to college debt-free right now, while those who need to borrow have fewer resources at their disposal.