Should Public College & PreK Be Free to All?

December 13, 2019

The 2020 election campaign has opened up a debate about whether public programs should be offered to everyone or only to low-income families. In this lesson, students consider arguments about universal versus means-tested public college and Pre-K.

To the Teacher

The 2020 election campaign has opened up a debate about education policy. All of the presidential candidates stand in favor of making education more accessible and affordable for students—whether these students are 4-year-olds entering pre-K or college applicants seeking to pursue higher education.

Early Childhood Education
Should PreK be free for every child?

However, the candidates differ in their approaches to how this should be done. One side of the debate, represented by Senator Amy Klobuchar, argues that we should spend limited public money to provide assistance to those families who need it most, through mechanisms such as scholarships and targeted tax credits. The other side of the debate, represented by Senator Bernie Sanders, argues that we should treat education as a right, and make both pre-K and college accessible to everyone, without testing for financial need.

This difference of opinion reflects a wider debate: Should we focus on creating targeted programs to help worthy individuals get a leg up, or are we better off restructuring society to include more universal goods that are held in common—programs that are likely to retain wide popular support because they benefit all people?

This lesson consists of two readings with discussion questions. The first reading looks at arguments about whether a free public college program should be means-tested or open to everyone. The second reading examines proposals for publicly supported pre-K and whether public programs should be universal or means-tested.

 


 

Reading One: Who Should Pay for College?
 

The 2020 election campaign has opened up a debate about education policy. All of the  presidential candidates stand in favor of making education more accessible and affordable for students—whether these students are 4-year-olds entering pre-K or college applicants seeking to pursue higher education.

However, the candidates differ in their approaches to how this should be done. One side of the debate, represented by Senator Amy Klobuchar, argues that we should spend limited public money to provide assistance to those families who need it most, through mechanisms such as scholarships and targeted tax credits. The other side of the debate, represented by Senator Bernie Sanders, argues that we should treat education as a right, and make both pre-K and college accessible to everyone, without testing for financial need.

This difference of opinion reflects a wider debate: Should we focus on creating targeted programs to help worthy individuals get a leg up, or are we better off restructuring society to include more universal goods that are held in common—programs that are likely to retain wide popular support because they benefit all people?

As Vox politics reporter Tara Golshan notes in a June 2019 article, Senator Bernie Sanders’ higher education proposal would make two- and four-year public and tribal colleges and universities tuition-free and debt-free. His plan would erase the roughly $1.6 trillion in student loan debt currently owed in the U.S., a measure that would be paid for by a tax on Wall Street transactions.  

Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar opposes this plan. She argues that public money should go only to the neediest: In other words, free college programs should be “means-tested.” While lower-income families would receive government help, those with sufficient wealth to pay for college would not get financial aid from the government. In an October 2019 appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, Klobuchar criticized Sanders and others, saying, “If you want to use a bunch of hard-working people’s money to send rich people’s kids to college for free, then I’m not your candidate.”

Some other Democrats share Klobuchar’s position, arguing that since the average income of families who send their children to college is higher than the national average, a universal debt-free college program would use public money to support Americans who already have greater opportunities. In a June 2019 article in Vox, senior correspondent Matthew Yglesias explained this position:
 

The crucial criticism of free college plans is that they are “regressive,” which means they deliver more public funds to higher-income families than to low-income families.

This happens for two main reasons.

One is that kids from affluent families are considerably more likely to attend college than kids from less prosperous backgrounds, so any kind of higher education spending tends to disproportionately benefit the affluent. The other is that lower-income kids pay less in tuition than affluent ones. They are more likely to attend relative cheap community colleges than relatively expensive public university flagship campuses. And lower-income kids benefit from Pell Grants and other forms of means-tested tuition assistance like state grant programs and scholarships.

Economists Sandy Baum and Alexandra Tilsley calculate that more than a third of the benefits of free college would go to households earning over $120,000 and relatively little money would flow to the genuinely neediest families or to independent students who are paying for college on their own.

There are different ways of doing the calculation, but they’ll all return the same result. “Parents of college students” is a richer group of people than parents overall. Affluent families are more likely to attend four-year programs rather than two-year programs, and less affluent families are more likely to be already getting help with their tuition.

That’s why Third Way, the flagship policy shop for centrist Democrats, warns that free college “could increase inequality,” while Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic terms it “a regressive scandal.”....

https://www.vox.com/2019/6/24/18677785/democrats-free-college-sanders-warren-biden

 

However, defenders of universal debt-free college programs argue that this position misses the point. Making college a human right, they contend, would open up opportunities for working-class people that are denied by even the most progressive means-testing programs. In a July 2019 article in Jacobin, staff writer Meagan Day defended the vision and strategy of universal free higher education offered by both Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another Democratic contender:

For one thing, the centrist account elides the fact that Sanders’s and now Warren’s plans are funded through progressive taxation. In both of these scenarios, the people paying the most for free public college for everyone are the rich. The difference is that the payment takes the form of collective taxes over the course of a lifetime, not individual tuition costs over the course of a few years. Were he to attend a public college, Donald Trump’s son Barron wouldn’t be charged tuition, but he wouldn’t exactly attend for free, either. His family would pay extra, year after year, for the existence of a robust public higher-education system.

But Barron Trump will probably not attend a public university at all. The affluent are much more likely to send their kids to elite private colleges, as Donald Trump did with all four of his older children. So in a future where public colleges are tuition-free and funded by progressive taxes, the rich are going to do one of two things: pay higher taxes and send their kids to the same public colleges as everyone else, or pay higher taxes and pay private tuition on top of that to keep their kids in elite environments….

Our eye is not just on where the money comes from, but what it goes toward: the freedom of all people to further their education if they want it, regardless of the circumstances of their birth.

People shouldn’t have to go to college to be able to attain a decent standard of living. The pursuit of higher education should be a personal choice, and wages and benefits should be high enough across the board that someone who chooses not to attend college can make ends meet and more. But right now, steep tuition and ensuing debt are major factors limiting social mobility and life choices for countless people who may have an appetite for continued education. For the working class, the situation is damned if you do and damned if you don’t: either forgo college and limit your employment options or take on major debt to get a degree….

If college were free, we’d see student-body demographics change dramatically. [South Bend mayor and presidential candidate Pete] Buttigieg is right that people who go to college today tend to come from wealthier families, but that’s not necessarily a permanent reality; in fact, it’s that way largely because college is so expensive. Eliminating tuition would go a long way toward making higher education and expanded life options a possibility for working-class people[.]

https://jacobinmag.com/2019/07/free-college-tuition-bernie-sanders-means-testing-universal-social-programs

 

Defenders of universal programs argue that these programs tend to have wide popular support—and are therefore more likely to survive partisan attacks and budget-cutting measures—precisely because they benefit all people. In contrast, means-tested programs are more difficult to defend, as recipients are constantly made to prove that they are “worthy” of public assistance.

Opponents of means-tested programs have often used racist appeals to turn white voters against programs for low-income people, suggesting that such programs are mostly used by people of color, that they are overly generous, or aren't truly needed. Most famously, President Ronald Reagan used the phrase “welfare queen” to describe a recipient of federal poverty aid, reinforcing false white stereotypes about Black people and stoking racist sentiments to turn voters against public assistance for low-income people.

As Day writes:

Means-tested programs are designed to differentiate, cherry-pick, and exclude, which means they’re guarded by miles of red tape. The process of enrolling is often elaborate, the criteria convoluted and stringent, and the thresholds arbitrary, meaning that people swiftly move in and out of eligibility without dramatic changes in their actual level of need. People frequently get dropped from programs without warning, forcing them to drastically change course in their personal lives. And the benefits are rarely complete — the majority of federal student aid recipients take out loans, just as many welfare recipients turn to payday lenders to pay the bills….

The more difficult it is for people to prove themselves deserving of aid, the fewer people will attempt and succeed. This means fewer program enrollees, which saves money, which allows politicians to get away with slashing taxes for the rich, balancing budgets, and continuing to promise the working class that they have its best interests at heart….

If means-tested programs are chaotic and politically delicate engines of division, universal social programs are elegant and politically sturdy engines of solidarity. At their best, they engender in people a sense of collective investment and common cause. Everybody chips in what they can, and everybody enjoys the fruits of their contributions. The programs are accessible, legible, and visible to all. Universal social programs feel not like begrudging charity but like a mutual endeavor, for which all bear responsibility and from which all benefit. Society is plainly elevated by mass participation and collaboration.

Universal social programs are not completely invulnerable to attack — consider the encroachment of charter schools on the existing public school system. But they do create mass constituencies willing to defend them that might not otherwise exist, such as when teachers, parents, and students recently mobilized to defend public education in a wave of militant teachers’ strikes. When social goods are enshrined as rights, they are not so easily taken away.

https://jacobinmag.com/2019/07/free-college-tuition-bernie-sanders-means-testing-universal-social-programs

Amid a crisis of student debt, the demand for free college is growing in popularity among voters, particularly those who vote in Democratic primaries. In this context, the presidential hopefuls will have to determine the best way to construct a program that meets the needs of their constituents.

 

For Discussion:
 

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. According to the reading, what is Senator Sanders’ proposal for higher education? How does it differ from that of Senator Klobuchar?
  1. What are some arguments for means-testing college tuition programs? And what are some arguments for universal debt-free college? Which do you find to be most convincing?
  1. What do you think about the broader debate over universal versus means-tested government programs?
  1. Writer Meagan Day argues that universal programs are “engines of solidarity.” What does she mean by this? Do you agree that this is a desirable quality of these programs?
  1. Is it important that our society have public goods held in common—such as schools, libraries, and public utilities? Or are these better made private, with some government support for those who have the most difficulty affording them? Explain your position.

     

 

Reading Two: Offering Pre-K to All Kids


The divide between means-testing and universal access is also under debate when it comes to early childhood education. Democratic Party politicians and education policy advocates across the country are currently discussing whether to make pre-kindergarten into a universally accessible program—essentially adding an additional year (or more) to publicly funded education of our children—or whether public money for early education should go only to the most needy families.

Those who believe in means-testing contend that, while publicly funded preschool is beneficial for low-income students and other at-risk children, it should not be a public priority to expand these programs to all children, regardless of need. In an October 21, 2019 op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer, Jeffrey Benatti, the executive director of a pre-K program in Delaware, criticized a plan to create universal pre-K in his state:

Research shows children who benefit most from high-quality publicly funded prekindergarten are those from families with financial challenges, children with learning disabilities, homeless children, and foster children. In fact, the data estimates that every $1 invested in helping low-income children access high-quality early learning programs yields up to $16 in societal benefits.

Studies also show that children from middle- and upper-income homes benefit little from prekindergarten. These children are exposed to stimulating home environments and benefit from higher parent engagement in learning experiences. Community-based early education centers are getting the job done for these children….

When priorities shift to creating a state-funded prekindergarten system, children who need and benefit most from a quality early education will suffer. State funding shortfalls, such as the 2018 funding freeze for Delaware Stars for Early Success, undermine the quality and effectiveness of existing programs.

“In a ‘universal’ program, once budgets get tight, the ones shunted aside are usually those who need help the most: low-income children and parents,” comments Chris Braunlich, vice president of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy and a former president of the Virginia State Board of Education….

Universal Pre-K is not the answer. The cost-benefit analysis does not justify the burden to Delaware's taxpayers…. Instead of expanding services, Delaware should fully fund existing programs for at-risk children where research shows the greatest return on investment for our tax dollars.

https://www.inquirer.com/opinion/commentary/delaware-universal-pre-k-preschool-education-20191021.html

 

Offering a contrary perspective, defenders of universal pre-K point out that cities such as Washington D.C. and New York City have enjoyed great success in recent years by implementing programs that are open to all kids. In a July 2019 article in the New York Times,  Conor P. Williams, a fellow at the Century Foundation, highlighted the results of a recently implemented pre-K program in Washington, D.C.:

The program is popular with parents: 73 percent of 3-year-olds and 85 percent of 4-year-olds were enrolled in the 2017-2018 school year. “With the pre-K participation rates that we have across the city, I think we can truly say that our public education system starts at age three,” says Miriam Calderon, who was the school district’s director of early childhood education during the program’s early years…

Turner Elementary School’s principal, Eric Bethel, said he’s seeing the impact of the pre-K program in his kindergartners. “They’re not spending the first three or four weeks of school crying because it’s some sort of foreign place to them,” he said. “They know school routines. They have stamina.”

But high-quality pre-K isn’t only about patiently navigating imaginary salads, block towers and frustration. These social and emotional skills help students acquire knowledge by building their abilities to learn in group settings. Good pre-K also builds academic foundations….

Just five years ago, 80 percent of kindergartners at Turner Elementary started the year behind on basic print concepts, like how to hold and use a book. As the school’s pre-K program has improved — Turner’s pre-K teachers have worked with a full-time coach for three years — the data have flipped. Last year, 76 percent of incoming kindergartners had mastered those reading basics…. In 2018, the school district reported that fewer than half of 3-year-olds were meeting early literacy benchmarks when they arrived in pre-K classrooms. However, 86 percent were finishing pre-K ready for kindergarten on the cognition skills measured by the city’s early childhood assessment — and 83 percent were becoming kindergarten-ready on language metrics….

[I]t will be decades before researchers can determine whether the program has affected students’ incomes or incarceration rates as adults. So far, though, Washington’s example does suggest that a universal, full-day, well-funded, school-based, developmentally-appropriate, holistic pre-K program can improve children’s lives — if the public is patient, and willing to pay.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/09/opinion/free-pre-k-washington.html

 

On the campaign trail, virtually all of the leading Democratic presidential candidates have expressed support for publicly funded pre-K programs. However, in many cases, the specifics of their plans remain vague. Some of the candidates might lean toward universal programs like those adopted by Washington, D.C. and New York City. But other candidates have proposed various forms of means-testing.

For example, Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan would not offer free pre-K to all, but rather would make it free for the lowest-income families, while capping early education expenses for families who earn more. As Vox senior reporter Anna North wrote in a July 2019 article:

“My universal childcare plan would guarantee access to high-quality, affordable childcare and early learning to every kid from 0 to 5 in America,” Warren told Vox…

For all families making less than 200 percent of the federal poverty line, childcare will be free. For everyone else, it will be capped at 7 percent of family income (according to Warren, families today typically spend between 9 and 36 percent of their income on childcare).

Warren would pay for the plan with a tax on families with a net worth of more than $50 million.

https://www.vox.com/2019/5/22/18302875/2020-election-democrats-child-care-kids-president
 

Another candidate campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, offers a different variety of means-tested program. Buttigieg has suggested the possibility of providing tax credits for families with children enrolled in pre-K. In such a system, low-income families would have their taxes reduced to the point that pre-K would be essentially free, while families with greater income would receive a more modest level of assistance through the tax code.

In contrast, Sen. Bernie Sanders has long advocated public PreK funding for all, regardless of income. In 2011, he sponsored a bill that would have provided childcare and early education to all children 6 weeks old through kindergarten.

While the call for “universal pre-K” has become a popular one among Democratic Party presidential candidates, it seems the devil could be in the details—and that some plans may be much less “universal” than others.

 

For Discussion:

  1. How much of the material in this reading was new to you, and how much was already familiar? Do you have any questions about what you read?
  1. Although many Democratic candidates claim to support universal pre-K, some of their plans may not provide equal levels of support to all families. According to the reading, what are some of the proposals that the candidates have offered?
  1. What arguments does educator Jeffrey Benatti offer in opposition to universal pre-K? How might defenders of a universal program respond? What arguments do you find most convincing?
  1. Do you think that the same arguments for universal pre-K also apply to free college? Or do the differences between higher education and early childhood education affect how public support should be provided? Explain your position.

 

Research assistance provided by Akin Olla.