Jim Clyburn’s odd argument against free public college

Representative Jim Clyburn (D – SC), a leader in the Congressional Black Caucus and third-ranking Democrat in the House, endorsed Hillary Clinton over the weekend. Almost immediately after his endorsement, he began criticizing Bernie Sanders’s plan to make public colleges tuition-free.

As he explained, first on MSNBC and then in an interview with Buzzfeed, free public college is bad because it will encourage black students to go to state schools instead of private historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs).

From Buzzfeed’s report:

Jim Clyburn, via Wikimedia Commons

Jim Clyburn, via Wikimedia Commons

“You’ve got to think about the consequences of things,” Clyburn said. “[If] you start handing out two years of free college at public institutions are you ready for all the black, private HBCUs to close down? That’s what’s going to happen,” Clyburn said.

“Tougaloo College in Misssissippi will be closed if you can go to Jackson State for free,” he said.

Coming out against tuition-free education at two year institutions, as well as four-year colleges and universities, actually puts Clyburn at odds with Hillary Clinton and President Obama as well as with Sanders, since both Clinton and Obama support making community college free. What’s more, America’s College Promise, the Obama administration’s plan for tuition-free community college, includes roughly $1 billion per year in grants set aside specifically for HBCUs (public and private) to apply for. In other words, Tougaloo College will still be able to compete with Jackson State for students in the scenario he’s describing.

But let’s be generous to Clyburn and limit his argument such that it is only describing a zero-sum competition for students between public colleges and private HBCUs. It seems a bit strained to insist on blocking tuition-free public college for every student (including and perhaps especially every black student) in deference to private HBCUs that only account for two percent of black college enrollment:

Chart via MattBruenig.com

Chart via MattBruenig.com

As Clyburn himself noted when making his case on MSNBC, many private HBCUs are religiously-affiliated, as well.

In any case, the data show that HBCU enrollment is nearly three times as high at public HBCUs as it is at private HBCUs, and two thirds of black students attend public colleges. In other words, tuition-free public college will benefit a solid majority of black students and an overwhelming majority of HBCUs — just not the private ones. Clyburn’s argument boils down to the assertion that protecting these private HBCUs is too high a price to pay for eliminating tuition for the already-high number of students who choose (or are financially forced into) public school — including public HBCUs.

As Matt Bruenig explains, this is pretty shaky reasoning:

What’s interesting about Clyburn’s take on this is that his argument is an argument against public school tuition subsidies in general. The point is that, when you subsidize public colleges, that puts private colleges at a competitive disadvantage. This will mean those colleges attract fewer students than if public college wasn’t subsidized. This is true regardless of the level of subsidy. Subsidizing public college tuition by 10% gives them an edge over private colleges. So does subsidizing them by 50%, 80%, and (as Sanders proposes) 100%. The more you subsidize them, the bigger the competitive edge they have on price, but there is nothing magically different about going from the level of subsidy they have now to the level of subsidy Sanders proposes. It’s a difference of degree not kind.

So that leaves you kind of scratching your head. Does Clyburn opposeall public school tuition subsidies on the (likely correct grounds) that they put private schools at a disadvantage (and thus private HBCUs at a disadvantage)? And if not, why not?

Public policy is a game of tradeoffs. Lowering the cost of tuition at public colleges will make public colleges more competitive relative to private colleges. But does that, by itself, make reducing the cost of tuition down to zero a bad idea?

I don’t think so.


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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  • hiker_sf

    Gee, are insults really necessary? My bad for engaging you.

    Have a good day.

  • I’m sorry. I thought you were interested in an adult conversation. My bad.

  • huks

    Clyburn said of the senator from Vermont. “The debate I was having was between my head and my heart. My head was staying neutral, and my heart was always with Hillary.” I hope he will find it in his heart that lots of promising young black kids are unable to afford to go to college.

  • hiker_sf

    Empty promises is what Obama gave us and it worked well for him getting elected.

  • That’s exactly how it works in Europe so Americans shouldn’t be naive that they would have gotten into those schools in Germany or France like they do here. I work at a university and it’s amazing how much we have to offer to make up for the shitty high schools these kids went to. It’s also ridiculous in the US that people can demand a college degree for jobs that really shouldn’t require one. I know why we push everyone towards college. Except for a few highly skilled trades, most jobs that don’t require a college degree pay crap and even worse those jobs don’t pay any more now than they did 10 years ago.

  • I didn’t say we should do nothing. I didn’t say anything like that. What I said was that there are a LOT of things that need to be done that would be highly popular and the first party to jump on those is going to have a huge success. Also, what we need more than anything is for Democrats to vote. And not just in presidential elections but in every fucking election including the runoffs for city council or whatever happens in their area. Yes, there is voter suppression, but we can work around that. We shouldn’t have to but we can. We’re in this mess because Republicans win big in “off-year” elections, then gerrymander the districts for the house and for the state legislatures and then we are screwed for the next ten years. That’s what we got from Democrats being too lazy to vote in 2010 and we are going to pay for that until at least 2022. Elections have consequences, as they say. One day Democrats will figure out that it’s important to vote. The religious right doesn’t sit them out and look at how the entire GOP has to pander to them in spite of how toxic they are to presidential candidates in the general election. Want to have power? Vote. But no, empty promises are not how to get people out to vote. We need real proposals that can be accomplished in the first 100 days (about the only change a new president has to do anything bold). I’m reading a lot of “if I don’t get my way I’ll stay home in November.” I want to smack morons like that. No one gets everything they want. Grow the fuck up. Fight for what you want. Take what you can get. And show up next time for another round. No one got anything any other way.

  • 2karmanot

    Clyburn, historic hero and Civil Rights leader has been totally co-opted and corrupted by his long tenure in Congress. Nothing says it more blatantly than his support of neo-liberal war monger Hillary Corporate Clinton.

  • huks

    This is an example of a black leader who instead of looking after the benefits and interests of all blacks only looks after the benefits of those few who can afford. For what? To gain political favor?

  • emjayay

    If you offer something really good for free, it changes demand and you have to ration. European countries tend to test at early grades and track students to limit demand. Of course they may also offer job training and apprenticeships etc. to the non-college bound, which we don’t really do either.

    In the American system, I’m sure there are also some who goofed around in high school and then got religion (no, not literally) in college, studied, and succeeded. This is also what are community colleges are for, although there is no substitute for really being there at a four year college or university.

  • hiker_sf

    I don’t really know you, but what I know of you is that you are a good person. While I agree that ’empty promises’ – especially during an election campaign – are frustrating, but it is how this system has worked in my entire voting life.

    But what frustrates me is that NOTHING is being done. Just as we helplessly sit by and watch NOTHING being done about laws implemented around the country that impede voting, expecting nothing never brings change.

  • emjayay

    Half the money goes to for profit “colleges”. Obviously the profit motive instead of primarily an educational motive skews what they do, what they charge, and how they market themselves.

    Not what my comment was about though. I really expected a lot of argument. Maybe you didn’t intend your comment to be a reply to mine.

  • so you prefer the current perpetual campaign in which politicians promise things they know they’ll never deliver and then use the failure of passage of those for the next campaign. Even things that ought to be easy don’t get done any more because politicians want to use those issues for the next election cycle. They’d rather avoid compromise and give us 0 than get us half of what we wanted. It’s fucked up.

    I’m tired of empty promises. I’m tired of bill proposals that will go nowhere. Yes, push for better but we have to live in the reality of what can get done.

  • hiker_sf

    So we shouldn’t push for this and agree to compromise on something better than we have now? I don’t understand when we decided to ‘aim low.’

  • It’s not like such a proposal would even get out of committee much less through Congress. I can’t be the only one tired of arguing over proposals that aren’t going to go anywhere.

  • To be fair, in the European countries that do not charge for tuition it is very hard to get into college. We have a lot of students heading off to college who should probably be doing something else instead. They aren’t going to graduate and we all know that. They are too far behind. (That also brings up the crappy public school system.) But we’ll take them and their borrowed tuition money and a couple of years from now when they drop out and owe $20-30k for nothing? We have a mess on our hands and it’s not just tuition. Our whole so-called education system needs to be overhauled. But don’t kid yourself about how things work in Europe. J.K. Rowling does a nice parody of the stress to get the grades and test scores to even have a shot at college in the Harry Potter books. She’s not really exaggerating.

  • Administrators at ALL schools benefit greatly from the current system. They increase tuition as much as they like and students just borrow more money. That’s why tuition has increased so rapidly. There is zero incentive to keep tuition rates down. And older Americans don’t understand that it’s like like it was 30 or more years ago when a student could work full time all summer and save enough to cover tuition. Wages have been stagnant and tuition keeps going up.

    Meanwhile we have a system that is set up to forgive some of the loan debt (although the amount forgiven has to be declared as income on that year’s taxes). Why not just charge them less to begin with and end the charade. Oh right, because overpaid administrators need to keep lining their pockets.

  • emjayay

    I have no idea what the opinion is on either side (just guessing very pro over here on the liberal side), but I tend to think that historically black colleges should just be historic at this point. They were established to address Jim Crow segregation which ended a couple of generations ago. Yeah, I know obviously a lot of those attitudes if not laws and practices have not disappeared in half a century, and discrimination everywhere is a thing. I’m not sure that HBCU’s, which are not supposed to be non-discriminatory themselves today, have enough positives to justify the negatives.

  • hiker_sf

    “Personally, I think Clyburn is disingenuously trying to find a justification for Clinton’s overt opposition to heavily subsidized or no-cost higher education.”

    And attempting to shore up the black vote with scare tactics.

  • marknc

    Stupid is stupid no matter the party.

  • Olterigo

    The guy is concerned with private HBCUs. Why wouldn’t the people on the Left believe him?

  • The argument is nonsense. One doesn’t have to look any further than a country like Germany, where private schools are still thriving amid a free public schooling system. Where even Americans can go to get a free education, in English. The only reason why private schools in the US would fail in this situation is if they’re being run poorly. Clyburn is just scared because those private schools all depend on being spoon fed from government money, not because of private funding.

  • It’s not just shaky reasoning, it’s irrational. Many nations around the world make college and universities FREE for qualified students because it is the ultimate investment in one’s own citizens.

    Only in America do we make higher education a privilege, and then to make matters worse, over the last generation we’ve turned it into a lifetime of soul-crushing debt. Four years of college should not cost as much as a house. And it’s not like it wasn’t tried before, but allowed to slip away when Republicans began valuing tax cuts over public education: California’s state colleges and universities used to be tuition-free. Who ended that practice? I’ll give you a clue: His name begins with R and he was once California’s governor and later America’s president.

    Personally, I think Clyburn is disingenuously trying to find a justification for Clinton’s overt opposition to heavily subsidized or no-cost higher education.

  • Considering how many people are profiting off of privatized education and the indentured servitude that results, to the tune of billions of dollars a year, it should come as no surprise that they’re scared of any change to the system.

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