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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