Bernie Sanders' plan for 'free college' will not destroy historically black colleges

The histrionics of this presidential race have overshadowed issue discussions. We are trying to correct that today with a piece by three academics on Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders' "free college" plan and it implications for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

The authors endorse the Sanders' plan and maintain it will improve the higher education options and outcomes for African-American students.

Mark Paul is a doctoral candidate in economics at University of Massachusetts, Amherst; Darrick Hamilton is director of the doctoral program in public and urban policy, and jointly appointed associate professor of economics and urban policy at the Milano School of International Affairs, Management and Urban Policy, and the Department of Economics, at The New School for Social Research, both at The New School in New York; and William Darity, Jr., is the Samuel DuBois Cook Professor of Public Policy, African and African American Studies, and Economics and Director, Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University.

By Mark Paul, Darrick Hamilton and William Darity, Jr.

On Sunday, Rep. James Clyburn, D-SC, responded to Sen. Bernie Sanders' tuition-free college proposal by repeating the old often-misapplied dictum there are no "free lunches." His more serious critique was that the proposal would harm historically black colleges and universities.

“[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 goes on and rhetorically stated, “Think about the consequences of things.”

For starters, Sanders' plan calls for four, not two, years of tuition-free public college.  It is Secretary Hillary Clinton's plan that calls for only two years, and two years in a manner that restricts student choice to only community colleges. Clinton's plan has the potential of extending to higher education, the racialized "tracking" that segregates our nation's schools into predominantly white and higher income advanced curriculum classes and predominantly black and lower-income remedial curriculum classes.

Nonetheless, we take Congressman Clyburn’s concern seriously, and we recognize the extraordinary historical importance that under-resourced HBCUs have had in educating black Americans when few others would, and in educating black Americans today in “stereotype safe” environments largely free of social stigma and racial animus.

Let’s start by thinking about the "consequences" of Sen. Sanders’ plans for South Carolina State University, a public HBCU in Rep. Clyburn’s home state. About a year ago, the South Carolina State House Ways and Means Subcommittee on Higher Education voted to temporarily close financially strapped SCSU.

Loyal students and alumni, sought to save the school through more alumni giving. But do blacks generally have the financial capacity to “save” HBCUs through private donations? Given the historical and persistent racial wealth gap, this is unlikely. The racial wealth gap is enormous, with the typical black family having about six cents for every dollar in wealth reserved for the typical white family.  n fact, black families where the head graduated from college have only 2/3 of the wealth of white families where the head dropped out of high school. Thus, even colleges educated blacks have little capacity to offer alumni donation.

Fortunately, the South Carolina Legislature relented and did not close SCSU, but the university was forced to make substantial faculty and staff reductions, offer fewer institutional scholarships, and propose building closures.

Does the free college plan of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., endanger HBCUs? (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Credit: Maureen Downey

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Credit: Maureen Downey

There is an alternative to SCSUs financial insecurity and drastic austerity; based on current SCSU enrollments, under Sanders' plan, we estimate that annual government payments covering tuition would amount to $28,155,608. More generally, 76 percent of students enrolled in HBCUs are enrolled at public HBCUs – Sanders' plan would cover tuition payments for all these students. Based on the total number of students enrolled and the average tuition, this would amount to at least $1.3 billion per annum of public funding directed at, otherwise, cash strapped HBCUs.

Beginning with chattel slavery, when blacks were literally the property of white slave owners, and continuing through the Jim Crow south, the use of restrictive covenants, redlining, general housing and lending discrimination — largely as a matter of policy, blacks have faced structural barriers to wealth accumulation. Their limited wealth has made it especially difficult for blacks as a group to finance college education. African American students are 25 percent more likely to accumulate student debt and borrow over 10 percent more on average than their white counterparts.

Bernie Sanders would establish higher education as a “right,” and bring us back to an era when public colleges and universities were free or virtually free — only this time blacks will be included. This will help all Americans, and especially black Americans, by establishing the intrinsic value of higher education as a “right.”  Furthermore, it will promote economic mobility, and establish a more educated and productive workforce.

Today, the combination of financial barriers and the lack of family resources limits the rate of college degree attainment for African-Americans – 28 percent of blacks who leave school after one year leave for financial reasons.

Let’s think about one final part of Sen. Sanders’ proposal: reductions in student loan interest rates. The government now lends to students at unnecessarily high interest rates, extracting billion of dollars in profit from students every year.  In addition to providing a federal grant program to cover tuition and fees at public universities, the senator’s plan reduces the current student loan interest rate from 4.29 percent to 2.37 percent.

We estimate this would, on average, save an African-American student with a new bachelor’s degree $8,334 over the duration of their loan. Admittedly, some private colleges may lose students, but making college tuition-free will make college more accessible to all students, and provide particular benefit to African-Americans with low levels of family wealth.

Ultimately the College for All Act (S. 1373) bill introduced by Sen. Sanders will lead us to a bolder, better, more inclusive America. One that, in the 21st century, a college education becomes a right; a right that extends to all Americans regardless of income, gender or race, and one without the stigma or distinction of who does or does not receive financial aid, or can or cannot afford to pay.