ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
And now let's turn to the Democrats and examine a pillar of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign.
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BERNIE SANDERS: Yes, we are going to make public colleges and universities tuition-free.
SHAPIRO: Sanders' pledge has come under attack, especially because it's not clear how he would pay for it. But a lot of people are saying it's a good idea. NPR's Eric Westervelt looks at both sides of the debate over the cost of higher education.
ERIC WESTERVELT, BYLINE: It's hardly a shock Sanders's free college plan has touched a nerve. The higher-ed nerves are pretty raw. Students are getting smothered by debt while the price of higher education has risen steadily and real wage family incomes have been mostly flat. Add to that the fact that some amount of colleges is now vital for finding any hope of a stable job, and you've got the makings of an affordability crisis or, as Sara Goldrick-Rab at the University of Wisconsin, Madison puts it...
SARA GOLDRICK-RAB: The middle class is truly being priced out of higher education right now.
WESTERVELT: Sanders's estimated $75 billion a year free public college plan has plenty of detractors. Kevin James is with the Center on Higher Education Reform at the Conservative American Enterprise Institute. James worries that free public college would do nothing to curb rising spending by wasteful administrators and end up subsidizing wealthy kids who can afford to pay for college and could actually end up limiting access.
KEVIN JAMES: When you make college free, essentially what you're doing is you're making institutions entirely dependent on public dollars. Whatever the public is willing to spend kind of determines how many students can go to college. And so in times when budgets don't keep up with expanding enrollments or even when budgets get cut, essentially that means that some students can't go.
WESTERVELT: But if the Democratic primary race pits Sanders' passionate idealism versus Hillary Clinton's can-do pragmatism, many who study college access and funding are siding with idealism, saying, in effect, perfection is the enemy of progress. Professor Goldrick-Rab says Sanders is advancing an important idea that a college education isn't just a privilege for the rich but a publicly-funded necessity alongside K-12 education, public libraries, police and fire protection.
GOLDRICK-RAB: If all we do is accept the status quo and insist that everything is very small and incremental, then nothing real will ever happen.
WESTERVELT: Goldrick-Rab knows that one of the biggest knocks against Sanders' plan is that paying for it with a tax on Wall Street speculation seems politically unrealistic. But her research makes the case that free two-year public college for all could be funded without new taxes simply by cutting inefficiency and waste in current higher-ed spending.
GOLDRICK-RAB: Most people don't realize how much money is already being spent. It's just not being spent well.
WESTERVELT: Others see his plan through the lens of growing inequality. Virginia Commonwealth University sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom sees free public college as key to addressing other long neglected issues, including...
TRESSIE MCMILLAN COTTOM: Unequal access to quality schools K through 12, unequal access to the resources to continue education by race, class and gender. We know those things are real, and this won't solve all of that. But I think it is an important intervention in the parts that we can solve.
WESTERVELT: Historically, most every major policy change, she argues, has seen a fierce debate over feasibility followed by efforts to make it politically feasible. Eric Westervelt, NPR News.
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