Bernie Sanders didn’t achieve the goal of enacting free college tuition nationally through his campaign for the White House, and the idea is highly unlikely to be approved by a Republican-controlled Congress.
But at the state level, the idea is finding new life.
This year both governors and candidates for governor have taken up the mantle of providing taxpayer-subsidized higher education in hopes of appealing to supporters of the self-described democratic socialist as well as President Trump.
“This is one of the legacies of the Sanders campaign,” said Ben Tulchin, a pollster on the senator’s presidential bid. “You put an idea out there, and it’s spreading.”
New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation in April—with the vocal support of Sanders and Hillary Clinton—that reduced the cost of tuition at four-year public universities. Last week, the Rhode Island House passed a scaled-down version of Gov. Gina Raimondo’s higher-education plan to provide two free years of community-college classes in exchange for in-state residency after graduation. And two years ago, Gov. Kate Brown lowered community-college tuition to $50 a term for eligible Oregonians. All three Democrats are seeking four-year terms in 2018.
The initiative is gaining ground thanks to some Republican governors as well. Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who is seeking reelection next year, signed a law in March that boosts grants for two years of tuition at public schools for students in certain fields. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, who will face voters again in 2019, enacted a similar reform in April. Term-limited Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signed a bill last month paying for free community college.
More states could join that group if some candidates have their way. Virginia Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam, the Democratic nominee in this year’s governor race, promises the state will cover the cost of associate degrees or workforce credentials for what he calls “new collar jobs” in exchange for one year of “public service.” The Democratic nominee in New Jersey, Phil Murphy, has only gone as far as to propose forgiving loans for students of math and science.
“Republicans and Democrats both recognize the importance of workforce development as part of attracting and growing businesses,” Northam spokesman David Turner said. “With a smart, fiscally responsible, targeted plan, you can find bipartisan support.”
In Iowa, where Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds recently replaced Ambassador to China Terry Branstad, Democrat Todd Prichard launched his campaign stating that “community college should be tuition-free.” In an email to supporters in April, the state representative called the proposal a “common sense” means of “building a 21st century workforce.”
Polling by PSB Research for the Campaign for Free College Tuition found three-fourths of respondents across ideological and generational lines supported free college for students, especially for those who meet minimum academic requirements.
Tulchin said polling for the Sanders campaign showed that the “aspirational message” of making college affordable was “particularly popular with millennials,” who make up the majority of new students and graduates. But he added that “it has really broad appeal,” including to adult learners or families, especially “if you can make it affordable.”
At least one governor candidate, Newton, Massachusetts Mayor Setti Warren, has acknowledged this won’t be free. Warren kicked off his own campaign for the nomination to challenge popular first-term Gov. Charlie Baker by proposing higher taxes on wealthy Bay Staters in order to pay for free public college.
With tax increases a perpetual cudgel, Republicans question the expense required to subsidize college. Northam has said the $37 million investment needed for his plan would be paid back twice over in income-tax revenue in five years, but David Abrams, a spokesman for Republican nominee Ed Gillespie, retorted, “We can make two-year and four-year college more affordable without having to raise taxes on hardworking Virginians.”
“If Virginians think college is expensive now, wait until Lieutenant Governor Northam makes it ‘free,’” Abrams said.
Colorado Democrat Mike Johnston, who is running for an open seat promising debt-free college or job training, said in an interview Saturday that his plan balances the constraints of “a tightly controlled budget” with growing both employment and wages by partnering with private businesses and requiring public service in exchange for tuition breaks.
While the idea gained notoriety thanks to a national Democratic campaign, Johnston argues that among the “primary targets” of his proposal are “a lot of the places where Democrats lost,” including rural and middle-class communities.
“We’ve got a lot of white, working-class folks who are in industries that they think are under fire and they’re not sure where their next opportunity is going to come from,” Johnston said. “I think this really speaks to them.”
More candidates will likely take similar positions. Kevin Harris, a spokesman for Maryland gubernatorial candidate Ben Jealous, said Monday that free college is a “core and central theme” of the Democrat’s campaign and that a proposal with more specifics is in the works. Former Ohio state Sen. Nina Turner, a possible governor candidate next year, like Jealous is on the Board of Directors for Our Revolution, a political nonprofit inspired by Sanders that advocates making “tuition free at public colleges and universities.”
Diane May, a spokeswoman for Our Revolution, said the national group is also “actively organizing around” free higher education.
“It’s not an issue that’s going to go away,” May said.
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