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Populist, Not Progressive – Presidential Opinion

Inside Higher Ed
By Don Francis, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Pennsylvania
September 11, 2015

On the presidential campaign trail, we’re seeing one so-called progressive candidate after another call for the federal government to enact major new spending programs to hold down tuition at public universities. Here’s the thing -- the results would be regressive: the prime beneficiaries of these proposals will be wealthier students who currently do not receive means-tested federal dollars.

Let me confess: I have spent the last 24 years of my life representing private colleges and universities in the Pennsylvania General Assembly and to the Pennsylvania congressional delegation. Because of that I know that the private four-year colleges and universities in Pennsylvania enroll a similar proportion of Pell Grant recipients as are enrolled at our state’s public universities, 24 percent versus 30 percent. I also know that with a few exceptions the average family income of students attending our name-brand public universities exceeds or approximates that of our private college and university students.

I get the politics of the candidates’ proposals. I understand that families are worried about paying for college. I understand that some students assume too much debt (though the average debt assumed for an undergraduate degree is a very worthwhile investment that returns far more value than a comparable loan for a new car). I understand that promising people they can attend a public university debt free is a popular political statement intended to help win an election. But let’s at least call this what it is: a cynical political proposal that is regressive in its use of government dollars to benefit upper-middle- and upper-income families.

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