AOC Schools Mayor Pete on Why Means Testing Free College Is Such a Bad Idea

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

I hope everyone had a pleasant Thanksgiving and no one’s still struggling to dig out from under a mountain of turkey leftovers and various vegetables that only appear  on our dining tables once a year.

None of those here. It was just my husband and I for Thanksgiving dinner – and neither of us cares for turkey. So we had duck, with a pomegranate relish; a potato gratin (with sage and manchego – a departure from my standard dauphinois, so as to use up some things lurking in the fridge); pureed carrots (with roasted cumin and coriander), and apple crumble (with almond in the crumble).

My apologies, dear readers, for posting this a bit later than I would have liked – a consequence of nicking my left index finger whilst preparing Thanksgiving dinner. This rather bloody but non-life-threatening injury nonetheless slowed down the typing of your humble blogger – an atrocious hunt and peck typist – said left index finger being one of those  I overuse.

Anyway, as we were enjoying the holiday, I saw AOC- House member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez –  schooled South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg on why means testing of any free college plan isn’t such a hot idea. And she ended with a reminder of the importance of community that’s entirely appropriate for the holiday season – while not straying into the saccharine territory of so much MSM coverage we see at this time of year.

Here’s the tweet, which embeds the Buttigieg ad that triggered AOC’s response. Although not named, the ad is clearly targeted at the free public college for all plans of Senator Sanders and Warren. Do make thirty seconds to view the ad that is embedded in the tweet. At the moment, I don’t have a functioning TV, so I’m blessedly insulated from some of the worst electoral nonsense. Until I saw the ad, I just didn’t realize how smarmy Buttigieg is. If you’re similarly innocent, it’s high time to dispel your ignorance.

For those who don’t use twitter much, if you click on the little blue > in the lower right -hand corner, you can see the entire thread.

But, don’t worry, I’ll discuss each of AOC’s points briefly. Her points are a necessary corrective to neoliberal nonsense and far more useful than the silly advice on how to talk to friends and family about politics over the holiday dinner table. And I envy her ease with communicating complex, hotly-contested concepts in familiar, easy to understand ltermsL as if she’s imparting the the merest common sense.

Let’s take AOC’s points in turn.

1. Universal public systems are designed to benefit EVERYBODY! Everyone contributes & everyone enjoys. We don’t ban the rich from public schools, firefighters, or libraries bc they are public goods.

This translates the larger policy issue into an example everyone can understand. Although private fire companies date back to 1699 in England, they long ago became a public good, and even Margaret Thatcher milk snatcher didn’t seek to revive them (or maybe she did and I missed that episode, during the years I lived there). Private companies never really caught on in the colonies, which instead relied on volunteer fire companies – note that these arose from the community. No less than George Washington was a member of his local fire brigade in Virginia, according to according to Gary Urbanowicz, director of the New York City Fire Museum, as quoted in How Stuff Works (although that story may have the same relation to fact as the more familiar anecdote about the cherry tree).

Here AOC just extends free college to the list of things most of us accept the government has – not to mention should – provide.

2. Universal systems that benefit everyone are stronger bc everyone’s invested!

Message: we’re all in this together. There’s an alternative to the neoliberal dog eat dog universe. No division between haves and have nots. Can’t argue with that.

3. When you start carving people out & adding asterisks to who can benefit from goods that should be available to all, cracks in the system develop.

Yes, and we then find ourselves squabbling among ourselves for the meager spoils, accepting the artificial constraint imposed by a public budget many of our betters try and erroneously compare to a household budget – rather than heeding the lessons of modern monetary theory (MMT). Point three  more of an extension of the previous point, really. (And some day, I really must dust off my master’s thesis – on US budget policy – and bang out some posts about how the concept of a public budget evolved throughout US history).

4. Many children of the elite want to go to private, Ivyesque schools anyway, which aren’t covered by tuition-free public college!

I happen to think that those who attend or aspire to the elite private universities would also benefit from a universal free public college whether or not they or their progeny avail themselves directly of its benefits. The very existence of free public college for all might lead more people to ask:  how much better is Stanford than Berkeley, to take just one example, of which there are many. If enough people decide the answer is – not so much –  that might then force private institutions to reduce their fees to attract the most talented students. Institutions sitting on huge endowments could perhaps use them to fund the studies of students, rather than on gilding campus infrastructure or overpaying administrators. (And, while we’re at it, how about proper compensation for grad student TAs and RAs, and the adjuncts – taken together, they do much of the teaching anyway).

5. Lastly, and I can’t believe we have to remind people of this, but it’s GOOD to have classrooms (from pre-k through college!) to be socioeconomically integrated.

Having students from different incomes & backgrounds in the same classroom is good for society & economic mobility.

Mixing up socioeconomic classes. This is necessary for us to revitalize communities and is  is a very important point to emphasize, particularly during the festive season. And to bring in another point, that I made in an earlier post this week about health care (and that Yves and others have previously made many times): the extreme inequality we see and the erosion of a sense of community doesn’t just hurt the poorest among us. It also affects the health of the entire population (see Federal Prosecutors Initiate Criminal Probe of Six Opioid Manufacturers and Distributors, in which I discuss the latest Journal of the American Medical Association study on declining US longevity).

Siloing people socioeconomically only prevents our communities from dealing with problems that threaten our very survival. And if we foul the planet so that it can no longer support life as we know it, the rich, too will (eventually) burn.

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  1. Adam Eran

    Amen, sister! Now let’s have mixed-income neighborhoods too! Let’s see some eight-plexes amidst the McMansions! I know…poor people are icky! (“Your Majesty, the peasants are revolting!” “Yeah, and they stink on ice!”)

    …but the poor have a lot to teach us about generosity and compassion. Lessons we could all use now.

    1. Mattski

      Or let’s eat the rich and all live more equably together across the board. I know, rich people are icky. :) But so is the notion that we should keep the noble poor around to give us lessons in nobility.

  2. JohnnySacks

    Some of the responses on her Twitter post are as horrid as they are ignorant. Just finished Frank’s ‘Listen Liberal’ so I’m acutely aware of the obsession with education being the way to overcome the plague of Dem facilitated de-industrialization among the left (as ridiculous that concept is to begin with), and now here we have an alleged Dem poisoning education. He makes me more ill the more he says.

    1. Tom Doak

      At least AOC doesn’t have to deal with many suggestions that she ought to be “hanged,” like Ilhan Omar’s Republican opponent suggested today.

      P.S. to J-L S: Smarmy is the perfect adjective to describe Mayor Pete. Unfortunately, I think it only resonates with Republicans.

    2. Kurtismayfield

      They keep harping education because they know not everyone will be able to do it, for many reasons. This way they can keep their advantages. Its like rich people saying “Make more money”:.

      1. jrs

        Those who will do it will do at most a bachelors at something, and not even necessarily at the hardest subjects. But that’s not even necessarily going to get them a job that pays the rent. The new high school diploma only not as valuable as a HS diploma once was.

  3. David in Santa Cruz

    Thanks for showcasing Elite Pete on why we should revive “Separate But Equal” in our social goods. Because the elites shouldn’t have to share “their” stuff.

    Thank goodness that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez has the gumption, clarity, and energy to articulate so forcefully just how morally hollow Elite Pete really is.

  4. cgregory

    Reparations for slavery ought to be considered in the light of education: Put $500 billion into refurbishing America’s public schools and base college admissions on income rather than race, and virtually the entire African-American population of the country would benefit– along with a very sizable number of whites and Latinx as well.

    1. Massinissa

      How is it ‘reparations’ then?

      Better to not use that term at all. Unless that’s what you’re saying?

      1. NotTimothyGeithner

        Its important to be mindful of the needs to address the implications of what happened to black America beyond slavery. The destruction of the cities was a major problem.

        And being prepared to deal with neoliberals who will say, “what about reparations?” to silence people. Team Clinton spent 2016 calling Sanders Bull Connor. The “centrists” are Republicans who abhor country pop and might not appeal to the evangelical crowd (cough Mayor Pete cough). They are still completely shameless monsters.

    2. Synoia

      If the US is to pay reparations, then should those who caught and sold the slaves also pay?

      Be careful with your answer.

      For light reading I suggest “Ladder of Bones” by Ellen Thorpe. Claose reading of the role of Madam Tinabu would be instructive.

      My first cat (female) was named Tinabu as she exhibited similar characteristics.

    3. JohnnyGL

      “Reparations for slavery ought to be considered…”

      What you suggest is good, but insufficient. That would do a lot for kids over the next 10-20 years, but doesn’t do much for people right now.

      I think the larger discussion about reparations needs to be framed properly to avoid 2 things. 1) That it’s ONLY about slavery, and not Jim Crow, redlining, war on drugs, mass incarceration, etc. Let’s not narrow the discussion to the idea that we’ve just been static as a society since 1865. 2) We should also avoid the idea that ‘reparations’ is ONLY about cutting a check to descendants. Even the most studied and vocal advocates and scholars on reparations have voiced fears that a nightmare scenario could occur where the Feds cut a check for, say, $10-20K for a few people who can provide documented claims of harm done and then declare victory and move on. If that happens, very little structural change occurs and the US is still stuck with the massive racial wealth gap and the abject, grinding poverty that’s present in so many places around the country remains untouched.

      The reparations discussion needs to happen, but it should be part of a larger project of democratizing ownership and power in our society. It should also be an opportunity to have an honest reevaluation of what we teach our kids about American history and the centrality of slavery and the cotton economy to the growth and development of the country. Overhauling education should be part of that discussion.

      1. Mike Elwin

        The reparations rap is pointless. First, reparations were made in the Reconstruction Period. Whether they succeeded or failed is grist for the mill, but they were made. Second, there’s no practical, acceptable way to decide which African-Americans get paid now, 150 years after the crimes, and which don’t. There simply isn’t. Third, we’re left with the social policy alternative, but it’s been social policy to improve the lot of the African-American poor for at least 50 years, since the War on Poverty.

        For good or ill, social policy hasn’t worked nearly as well as its advocates hoped. Yes, of course, we need to acknowledge the many ways the policy has been ruthlessly stymied by its opponents, but is there any doubt that there’s a limit to its overall effectiveness?

        The time for reparations is over. Let’s just continue the unending task of creating a decent place to live.

        1. marym

          The arguments surrounding reparations are based on the formal discussion about many different reparations, and actual land reparations received by African Americans which were later taken away… Around 40,000 freed slaves were settled on 400,000 acres (1,600 km²) in Georgia and South Carolina. However, President Andrew Johnson reversed the order after Lincoln was assassinated, and the land was returned to its previous owners. In 1867, Thaddeus Stevens sponsored a bill for the redistribution of land to African Americans, but it was not passed.

          Reconstruction came to an end in 1877 without the issue of reparations having been addressed.

          Among working-age adults without a college degree, 6.2 million whites are lifted above the poverty line by the safety net — more than any other racial or ethnic group. (See Figure 1.) In addition, the percentage of people who would otherwise be poor that safety net programs lift out of poverty is greater for white working-age adults without a college degree than for other adults without a college degree.

      1. drumlin woodchuckles

        Did rich suburban white schools and poor Appalachian abandoned-coal-mine ex-coal-country mountain white schools get the same funding per student as eachother?

        If not, why not? And if not, do the better funded white schools owe the worse funded white schools reparations?

  5. ChrisPacific

    Watched the video. Ugh. Save us from ‘smart’ people operating outside the limits of their competence.

    Here’s Buttigieg from April on publicly funded tertiary education:

    Americans who have a college degree earn more than Americans who don’t. As a progressive, I have a hard time getting my head around the idea of a majority who earn less because they didn’t go to college subsidizing a minority who earn more because they did.

    And my translation of it at the time:

    “As a progressive,” he believes that investing taxpayer funds in things that lead to better outcomes (like college) is a bad idea, because there is a chance that people might become wealthier or more successful as a consequence, and thereby less deserving of aid, calling the overall policy into question. The money would be better spent on programs that help the poor without actually lifting them out of poverty, in order to fully preserve their eligibility for our sympathy and financial assistance. All he needs is a charitable foundation to administer it all and he’ll be Hillary Clinton 2.0.

    He has obviously gained a better grasp of the approved messaging since then (note the resistance to any movement of the Overton Window, and the appeals to electability) but the overall sentiment is the same.

    1. False Solace

      1. Education is a universal good. And if you don’t believe that, you probably shouldn’t run as a Democrat or a progressive or pretend to be one.

      2. The majority who earn less also pay less in taxes. Romney famously complained about the 47% percent. How much are those poorer non-graduates actually subsidizing?

      3. A college degree is worth less than it used to be. Just check out the incomes of recent college graduates compared to their student loans. Those of Buttigieg’s mindset have already neutered the subsidies. The results are unconscionable.

      4. 69% of high school graduates go to college. Many of them don’t finish their degree. So it seems that subsidizing college would help a majority of people who graduate high school and Buttigieg is full of [family blog]. Furthermore, reducing the burden would help more people graduate. Surely it’s better for more people to successfully graduate than drop out. Why do I even need to say this…

    2. Mike Elwin

      I don’t read his comment that way. I read it as understanding that the poor and middle classes are subsidizing the rich, now that public policy is dominated so thoroughly by tax cuts and tax havens for them. So the poor and middle classes will still be paying for college, won’t they?

      That’s a valuable insight, I think. It’s separate from whether college should be free for all. There are important, progressive reasons to make it free, but we should be careful to determine who exactly would be paying for what and whether it can be structured so that it’s really worthwhile.

      1. ChrisPacific

        I agree with that statement, but I think it’s a stretch to interpret Buttigieg’s comment that way. Occam’s Razor suggests he was arguing for means testing of education funding, given that that is precisely the policy he is now proposing. I think he was using ‘subsidized’ as a synonym for ‘publicly funded’ and applying the lazy assumption that public funding amounts to a subsidy from all Americans, poor or otherwise.

        I could be wrong, but if so I’d expect to see evidence of it in his later statements and I haven’t as yet.

      2. notabanker

        Sure, because we can’t have Exxon pay 95% of their taxes in the states instead of overseas, or tax Amazon et al…. And let’s ignore the fact the the vast majority of taxes come from the base that would be means tested out. Or that taxes have nothing to do with funding policy, it’s a means to take money out of circulation. We deficit spend, habitually.

        Insightful? Hardly. Excuse to do nothing? Winner.

    1. marym

      When Bernie is in the White House, he will:
      Pass the College for All Act to provide at least $48 billion per year to eliminate tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities, tribal colleges, community colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeship programs. Everyone deserves the right to a good higher education if they choose to pursue it, no matter their income.

      (2) COMMUNITY COLLEGE.—The term ‘community college’ means—
      “(A) a public institution of higher education at which the credential that is predominantly awarded to students is at the sub-baccalaureate level; or
      “(B) a public postsecondary vocational institution, as defined under section 102(c).

      (can’t find 102(c) though!)

    2. HotFlash

      Bernie’s plan does. This is from his website page “Bernie on the Issues”,

      College for All

      Guarantee tuition and debt-free public colleges, universities, HBCUs, Minority Serving Institutions and trade-schools to all.
      Cancel all student loan debt for the some 45 million Americans who owe about $1.6 trillion and place a cap on student loan interest rates going forward at 1.88 percent.
      Invest $1.3 billion every year in private, non-profit historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions
      End equity gaps in higher education attainment. And ensure students are able to cover non-tuition costs of attending school by: expanding Pell Grants to cover non-tuition and fee costs, tripling funding for the Work-Study Program, and more.

      1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

        Glad to see this. My father was a guidance counselor (and much-loved coach, with a scoreboard named in his honor) at a vocational-technical high school for many years. Admittedly, this was a high school – i.e., a secondary school- and not the tertiary education of the free college plans. University doesn’t appeal to everyone, nor is it by any means the only pathway.

        1. a different chris

          Speaking of “only pathways”, we keep chunking it together with K-12.

          But some of my lifetime favorite, both in their technical skill and inter-personal qualities, co-workers actually “went back” to college – whether they didn’t initially go or started but dropped.

          Having that option more affordable – that is, free – can only be good.

      2. Fraibert

        I remain concerned that no provision seems to be made for people who have paid off their loans.

        At a minimum, it seems to me that under something like Bernie’s plan the difference between interest paid and the proposed 1.88% rate should be returned and even that is quite ungenerous compared to full cancellation of an outstanding debt.

        1. NotTimothyGeithner

          Bc this is an all or nothing proposition. M4All, jobs programs, etc are the provisions. Political capital isn’t a finite resource used up by sharing March madness picks (gee, Obama went with the better seed again). Its built by pushing.

          I don’t see a proposal for more doctors despite the inadequate amount for the population either.

          Debt is a crippling option in need of relief or not starting.

        2. a different chris

          >I remain concerned that no provision seems to be made for people who have paid off their loans.

          Why? Life is unfair, get used to it. We’re not doing this to comfort every snowflake, we’re doing it because getting more of our kids educated up to the level that for instance Europeans take for granted is necessary.

          Do you think we should have had another war right after Vietnam since it was unfair that kids drafted later didn’t get to be shot at? Builds character, right?

        3. Kurtismayfield

          You got an education when it was much cheaper in real dollars. I got my bachelors for a much smaller multiplier to minimum wage than kids do today. Sorry its not a real comparison to say “I paid off my loans” When your loans were so much smaller in real dollars.

          1. False Solace

            Student loans have tripled in the last 10 years, to $1.5 trillion. The price of college really is different now.

            1. Shiloh1

              The student loans are what drove up the price 2 to 3x of CPI since the 1980s. Debt and cash both spend the same, driving up the price. The seller (colleges) are charging what the market will bear, minus some token window dressing “aid”.

              1. drumlin woodchuckles

                I had thought that it was the Great Tax Revolt of the 1980s which led state legislatures all over America to boycott their state universities and defund them and force them to make up the difference by raising tuition.

                I thought that student loans THEN expanded to fill that vacuum.

                1. Shiloh1

                  Were the states funding the private colleges too? You know, those that the high school guidance counselors refer to as “dream schools” for the students encouraging them to apply.

        4. False Solace

          This is the exact same whinging I heard during the GFC, when second-rate jealous graspers crawled out of the woodwork to complain that we might do something about skyrocketing mortgage foreclosures. We all see how that turned out — 11 million families turned out of their houses, Obama did jack all about it, and the economy still hasn’t recovered.

          Please get it through your head that young people who can afford to buy houses and start families is something all of us will benefit from. Including people who paid off their loans.

    3. Jason

      That makes all the difference. If it was just free college I don’t think AOC’s argument is that strong TBH.

  6. Susan the Other

    AOC is in my pantheon of enlightened, inspired leaders. I’m so old I’m amazed she is so young and so brilliant. And so clear and so no-BS.

    1. notabanktoadie

      Regarding means testing he makes the point that “free college” is not a handout to the rich if funded through progressive taxation. Ashburn

      LIkewise, an equal Citizen’s Dividend could be funded via negative interest and yields on the inherently risk-free debt of monetary sovereigns – except for a negative-interest-free exemption for individual citizen’s up to a reasonable account limit.

    2. Dirk77

      I’m behind on this so appreciate the explanation of means testing and his mentioning of optimization. Any time I hear the word “optimize”now, I immediately translate to: “over-optimized” and its corollary: “welfare for data scientists”. So I’m for dumping means testing just on that. Anyways, how is free college supposed to work? I assume that places such as Berkeley will replace their relying primarily on tuition for funds and go back to full state support? Or is it more subtle than that?

  7. notabanktoadie

    Good! Then there should be no opposition to a Citizen’s Dividend EQUALLY to ALL citizens (including the young via a risk-free savings account to be released to them at age 18) for the same reasons cited above for universal free education.

  8. kengferno

    Thank you for posting this EXACTLY when I needed it in order to counter a pro-Pete person! If there’s any more of these kind of arguments floating around out there, I’d appreciate being pointed towards them!

    1. Jerri-Lynn Scofield Post author

      Glad to hear it. Sometimes I see something that hits the nail exactly on the head.

  9. John Zelnicker

    Thanks for posting this, Jerri-Lynn.

    Mayo Pete certainly is smarmy and a bit slimy, too, with the straw man that the middle/working class will have to suffer a tax increase to pay for free public colleges. Neither Sanders nor Warren has proposed such a thing.

    This also highlights why the knowledge of MMT needs to be spread far more widely so we can stop all this BS about how we are going to pay for public goods.

    Lately, when people ask how we are going to pay for some new program I just tell them the same way we pay for the military. No one ever asks how we’re going to pay for that.

    1. flora

      In the 1970’s state colleges and universities were paid/supported for roughly 3/4ths the cost of tuition by fed and state tax dollars. In-state students paid roughly 1/4th the total cost of tuition: buildings, labs, infrastructure, faculty and staff wages, books, housing, etc.
      It wasn’t too hard to pay one’s way through a state school with a combination of summer jobs and part time school year jobs.

      Then came the 80’s, tax cuts and more tax cuts, cutting funding for social services and education. Now, states and the fed support only covers about 1/4th the cost of in-state college fees. Students are left to pay 3/4ths the cost, and the cost has risen multiples of inflation.

      Simply putting taxes percentages back where they were in the 70’s and returning state education support to the 3/4ths level of the 70’s would fix the problem for most people. The oxen that would get gored to do this in the form of losing their tax breaks will raise holy heck before they let that happen, imo.

      Bet if Alfred E. … er… Mayo Pete is asked about increasing state support to the 3/4ths cost level of the 1970s he’d have the same “oh no, can’t do that, rich kids might benefit” response. (I kept looking for the talking doll pull-string on the back of his neck.)

  10. Fern

    AOC is getting better and better at delivering messages. She went straight to the core of the issue, explaining clearly that Buttigieg’s argument could be applied to free k-12 education or free use of public highways, and that “universal systems that benefit everyone are stronger bc everyone’s invested!”

    Anyone who is just now beginning to see what a disaster Buttigieg is should go back and read Jonathan Larson’s excellent series of investigative reports on Buttigieg’s firing of the black police chief in South Bend. These detailed reports have not gotten enough attention, and some of them are now impossible to find on a Google search, although they were prominently displayed a short time ago. Fortunately, I had bookmarked them.

    In this early report, Larson reveals that a small group of racist white police officers were trying to get the black police chief, Darryl Boykins, fired, and that the police department’s communications director had discovered them plotting to remove Boykins and making incredibly racist comments about him on some tapes that had been recorded by a device set up by the previous police chief. Only 3 months after being elected, Buttigieg summarily fires and then demotes Boykins, without consulting with his city council or the black community, creating chaos and bad blood that continues to this day.

    Why would Buttigieg have done that? Larson suggests a possible explanation — Buttigieg’s biggest donor , Bob Urbanski, is close friends and a supporter of one of these white police officers. In this early article, you can word search “Urbanski” to find the connection between the reputedly racist police officer and Buttigieg:

    Here’s an article that Larsen dedicated to the donor/white officer relationship:

    Here’s an article from last month that illustrates the extraordinary bad blood between the town council and Buttigieg. I have never seen this level of dysfunction in municipal politics. The attorney for the town council quotes one of the comments made by a plotting white officer and applies it to the town council’s ongoing attempts to be allowed to hear the tapes, which Buttigieg has been fighting tooth and nail. Larsen writes:

    “Palmer {the town council’s attorney} continued, citing an epithet one officer on the tapes used about Buttigieg, saying, “If my doing my job leads people to believe that he’s a ‘fucking pipsqueak,’ like somebody said, that’s fine, too. This is not aimed at him.” Again — this is the attorney for the South Bend town council. I’ve never heard of a dispute this extreme between a mayor and their council.

  11. Tom Stone

    As someone who watches very little TV ( Perhaps 8 hours so far this year) I had not seen any of Mayo Pete’s ads.
    Smarmy is a good description.
    Who was who said that Republicans fear their base while Democrats despise theirs?

  12. Jeff W

    Jacobin has its own response “Sorry Mayor Pete, Means-Testing Is Not Progressive.” From the dek: “By going after free college, Pete Buttigieg is doing the bidding of the Right.”

    The final paragraph:

    No matter where the income line is drawn, means-testing almost always fuels resentment among those just above the threshold: “Why should I have to pay taxes so they can get this service?” This plays into the divide-and-conquer strategy of the Right. Universality builds solidarity and makes programs less politically vulnerable. That’s far more progressive.

    Instrumental considerations (e.g., making programs less susceptible to attack, enhancing socioeconomic diversity in education) aside, I think, that, more importantly, and more sinisterly, in line with his rampant neoliberalism, Buttigieg’s position is simply an assault on and a denial of higher education as a common good—that we might, purely as a normative matter, want to make public higher education available free-at-the-point-of-service to everyone, even if some people could easily pay for it.

  13. ivoteno

    even if college was free for everyone, will that stop the reality of college educated people having to work at starbucks to make ends meet? granted, the starbucks gig would look a bit better without having to pay back student loans, but it makes one question the value of the “education” regardless of price.

  14. Altandmain

    The very existence of free public college for all might lead more people to ask: how much better is Stanford than Berkeley, to take just one example, of which there are many. If enough people decide the answer is – not so much – that might then force private institutions to reduce their fees to attract the most talented students.

    Unfortunately, it may not be the case.

    Often a lot of employers will only hire at a few elite schools. That’s especially true among many of the higher paying professional jobs in the 10%. The cynic in me says that this is the rich protecting their class privilege. Probably not far from the truth.

    It might lead to employers discriminating even more against public schools than they currently do.

    There are other problems. It might worsen the underemployment that graduates face and lead to degree inflation. That’s because there isn’t as much demand for college graduates – and the meme about young people working in minimum wage jobs with degrees is not without justification. In particular, the arts may have been especially hard hit.

    Pete is a neoliberal that is determined to sustain the status quo and needs to be discredited, but I’m not 100% convinced that this will result in the cure-all that many here are hoping for.

    1. Yves Smith

      I have to differ. The places that are fixated on elitism also usually require graduate degrees, and going to a top school there, and having done well at a well-regarded public college (Berkeley, UVA, Rutgers, University of North Carolina, and other schools where the majors in those schools are seen as academically demanding) makes you competitive. McKinsey in particular is having to cast its net way wider in the past because it is having even more difficultly competing with finance and tech.

      On the other end of the spectrum, Microsoft is hiring mere high school grads that it sees as having computer acumen. And from a late 2018 article:

      According to the post [at Glassdoor], these are 15 companies that no longer require a university degree for some of their top jobs:

      Ernst and Young (EY)
      Penguin Random house
      Costco Wholesale
      Whole Foods
      Home Depot
      Bank of America

      1. Mike Elwin

        The companies hiring high school grads are doing it because more and more computer programming is fully automated, thus requiring fewer skills than previously. It’s simple Taylorism, nothing more.

      2. Altandmain

        The places that are fixated on elitism also usually require graduate degrees,

        Often I find the professional services tend to be very picky. Law is a good example of pickiness. Investment banking might be another example. These are the types of jobs that are likely to get people into a high paying job and lift them from a lower class existence into a higher class existence.

        The opening I see is that in many professional services, having your designation (ex: CPA for accounting firms, P.Eng for engineers, etc), is more critical, but those in turn have their own lengthy requirements that make it difficult for people to obtain who don’t have considerable financial resources themselves (Ex: not in the upper middle class or don’t have upper middle class parents).

        The net effect is that social mobility declines and the upper middle class create barriers for entry into their class.


        In regards to your argument about companies who hire more high school graduates, the big question becomes – do these high school graduates get into the high paying jobs in large numbers? Or do they get the less high profile, less well paying work once hired? It seems like right now we have this tier (and each tier increases your chances of getting into the top 10%).

        1. Very prestigious universities
        2. Less prestigious, but still very regarded universities (many state flagship universities might fall into this category)
        3. Regular universities
        4. Community college
        5. Those without post-secondary degrees

        People in 3 can still study in what might be considered “high paying” majors and earn a good living, but they still face barriers to get to a high paying job. This system in my opinion has basically entrenched an aristocracy.

        As far as my degree inflation claims, here is basically a summary of my arguments.

        Effectively, this has created a system that makes it very difficult for people without post-secondary education to advance. Particularly for older workers, this might cause significant challenges when they seek new employment.

        I think the big problem is that the top 10% have entrenched themselves and that this is creating problems for everyone else less well off.

        1. Yves Smith

          I am not disagreeing that it’s very difficult to get into an Ivy equivalent and that confers a lot of advantages. However, professional firms look hardest at the school where someone got their professional degree, and those schools most assuredly take a considerable number of students from highly-regarded and even middling state schools if the student had other accomplishments (killer LSATs/GMATs, graduating summa or a major where the school has a strong reputation, being head of the student body, etc).

          On top of that, US News & World Reports has long bolstered the reputation of some second tier business schools (and I assume law schools too) by rating their degrees on a “bang for the buck” basis, which effectively tells employers this is where you find capable people for less than the Harvard/Yale/Stanford starting salary.

          Put it another way: the fact the McKinsey is having to cast its net wide says there is more demand for “talent” than can be satisfied by elite colleges. I agree mobility to the top 10% is more constrained than it once was, but this is just not as black and white as you suggest.

          Moreover, better funding for state schools will enable some, if not many,

          1. Shiloh1

            Ahem … Denninger article today regarding Detroit public school valedictorian, Michigan State and algebra.

            What are the checks and balances from taxpayer perspective? We know it’s follow the money for the educational and financial interests who laugh all the way to the bank daily.

    2. LowellHighlander

      I wish to point out, with regard to AOC’s point #4, an argument whose origins I believe would be based on Thorstein Veblen’s economics: Inasmuch as the daughters and sons of many wealthy people might well opt to attend a public university, such as UCLA, UNC, U-Michigan, etc. (perhaps, amongst other reasons, to enjoy the football and basketball games), their increased presence on campuses of public universities would help to raise their stature vis-a-vis the private, elitist colleges and universities.

      [And may I add that I, and possibly Dean Baker, would be interested in reading Ms. Scofield’s academic treatise on the concept of a public budget? If she could post it on UMI/ProQuest or her alma mater’s webpage that hosts that university’s Ph.D. dissertations and Master’s theses, it would make it easier for all of us to access her thesis.]

    3. JohnnyGL

      “Often a lot of employers will only hire at a few elite schools.”

      Employers’ standards vary a lot with the tightness of the labor market. I’ve seen the HR dept at my own employer do it over the 12 years I’ve been with the company.

      During the great recession, I saw our HR dept only hire the lowest level positions with college grads on temp contracts.

      When the local economy picked up a few years ago, they got caught out and had to reposition rapidly as a lot of kids wandered off from a crappy temp job to grab more attractive permanent offers, often from our own clients that they’d interacted with directly!

      They’ve since done a lot more straight-to-permanent highers with hefty increases in starting salaries.

    4. turtle

      Someone else made a similar argument here some months ago. My response then was that I believed that the opposite would actually happen because there would be a surge of applicants and universities would have to be even more selective because they wouldn’t be able to accommodate the increased demand. More selectivity would equal higher status for those who get in. (

      My model for this was Brazil. It has free public universities. They are very hard to get into, and consequently have stronger reputations in general than private universities. An effect of this, by the way, is that the people who tend to get into the free public universities are the rich, who generally receive better educations in k-12 (paradoxically, by going to private schools).

      Since I posted that, I discovered that Georgetown had done an analysis of Clinton’s free university plan (free for families making less than $125k) and had a similar prediction (

      In making these projections, the Georgetown Center assumes that selective public universities will not increase capacity, or increase it very little. Mid-tier public universities typically have some room to grow, but they can’t grow overnight by up to 22 percent.

      The Georgetown Center would expect selective institutions to fill first. State flagships and the most selective publics would experience a surge in applicants, but could become even more selective by turning more prospective students away. The most selective colleges and universities would have their pick of the most qualified and highest achievement students from their expanded pool of applicants. Then, the mid-tier public universities would have their pick of the students who were well-qualified but couldn’t get into the flagships.

      The result is that, in a cascading effect, less qualified candidates would get bumped down the chain into less-selective and open-access colleges. California’s three-tiered public university system has demonstrated this effect for years, and we would expect it to be mirrored in other states.

      It would make sense that these effects would be even stronger if everyone were allowed free tuition regardless of income (if they can be admitted!). I say this as someone who supports universal free tuition, like Sanders’ plan. I just hope that people will be clear-headed about all the effects that this will have, so that no one is caught off-guard and ends up complaining. Also, knowing this can help us prepare and try to make the system more equitable.

      1. Altandmain

        My model for this was Brazil. It has free public universities. They are very hard to get into, and consequently have stronger reputations in general than private universities. An effect of this, by the way, is that the people who tend to get into the free public universities are the rich, who generally receive better educations in k-12 (paradoxically, by going to private schools).

        The problem I have with this argument is that in Brazil, the bottleneck is the universities have limited slots. That’s because they had more youth getting an education that previously did not. The US does not have that big of a bottleneck at a primary and secondary level.

        In the US, the opposite is happening due to demographics. There is declining post-secondary enrollment due to a lower birth rates and a declining enrollment of international students. In fact, colleges are having to fight for fewer students.

        It’s far more likely that over the next few decades, if the population does decline, we may see a few of the smaller post-secondary institutions merge or simply cease operations because they are no longer financially viable.

        As far as California becoming a model – I’m not sure about this at all. California is facing rising inequality, and losing its middle class. It may end up a very stratified society, with those working in high paying jobs in tech, finance, entertainment (although only for a handful of high paying jobs, as most entertainment jobs don’t pay well), and medicine, while the rest barely get by.

        1. turtle

          I get it that the US has different conditions than Brazil, but public universities in the US have limited slots as well. Just look at their acceptance rates.

          That article about the demographic changes in the US reducing enrollment makes some sense, but even they say that it could go the other way too. Even if it does reduce by 15% due to declining birth rate like they estimate, if it increases 22% due to free tuition, that’s still an overall increase of almost 4%. That’s not much of an increase, but 22% is predicated on Clinton’s plan which had a $125k family income limit. If there’s no limit (Bernie’s plan) the increase in enrollment from free tuition would probably be closer to 25-30%.

          I accept that it could be a wash in the end though, so perhaps the free tuition is just what the universities need to counteract the birth rate decline. Either way, I just don’t see how public university degrees would become any less valuable as a result of free tuition.

          As far as California I didn’t read that as it becoming a model so much as just serving as a real-world example of the tiering of demand for different levels of universities. That’s just a common economic process anywhere.

  15. Fred Mullen

    Academic bios of FDR (e.g., Jean Edward Smith; H.W. Brands) and histories of the New Deal (e.g., William Leuchtenburg’s classic Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal: 1932-1940) have good descriptions of the administration’s internal discussions in crafting the legislation establishing Social Security.
    FDR understood and explained that providing coverage and benefits to all wage and salary earners without any means testing would help protect Social Security from future attacks by plutocrats and their reactionary lapdogs who would look to limit and ultimately dismantle the system. So one Democratic Party Harvard College grad understood in the 1930s what a more recent grad doesn’t or won’t.

  16. Nancy E. Sutton

    “Just because you are poor, does not mean you are dirty, or stupid, or mean.” Sixto Rodriguez aka Sugarman

    1. Angie Neer

      As a side note, I don’t think Rodriguez himself has ever been known as Sugarman or Sugar Man. About the only thing I don’t like about the film “Searching for Sugar Man” is that the title conflates Rodriguez himself with the Sugar Man (drug dealer) who is a character in his song of that name.

  17. Joe Well

    The most prestigious private colleges are already tuition free for most Americans because of financial aid. This provides a case study in why means testing is bad. These colleges then have a financial incentive in admitting students who will pay full freight. In Scotland, they made univerisities free only for Scots. The result was predictable: they heavily recruited English, Welsh, Americans and other foreigners. Free for all is the only sustainable option.

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