Friday, December 13

Abhishek Shetty: Clinton’s college affordability plan traps students into workfare scheme

(Creative Commons photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikipedia)

(Creative Commons photo by Gage Skidmore via Wikipedia)

NPR reported that Sen. Bernie Sanders is ready to endorse former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for president on Tuesday, with her proposal to eliminate college tuition for certain students instigating the move. However, given his support for free college tuition, he might want to hold it off for now.

Clinton, the presumptive Democratic nominee, announced a new plan for college affordability Wednesday. Under the plan, students coming from families making less than $125,000 per year would not be required to pay tuition at public universities.

The plan is a step up from her previous promise of 'debt-free' education for college students. Even Sanders approved of it, saying that it would “revolutionize the funding of higher education in America.”

The fine print in Clinton’s plan has gone unnoticed, however: students benefiting from the plan will have to work 10 hours a week and contribute their job earnings toward their tuition.

This idea strongly resembles a workfare scheme, in which individuals have to work in order to receive a benefit from the government. On the face of it, it seems like an equitable system where the individual pays back the government for welfare benefits. However, these schemes usually give the government the power to control the type of work done by the recipients. Clinton’s two-sentence description of her plan's workfare element gives leeway for state governments to decide how students spend 10 hours of their week.

Clinton's workfare proposal is troubling for two reasons. First, it means that her "no tuition" plan contradicts itself by requiring payment in the form of a job. Second, the calculated, vague wording of the proposal might allow the government to control the types of jobs some students will be working, potentially creating inconveniences for busy students.

In itself, the workfare proposal goes against the idea of eliminating college tuition. If free tuition comes attached with a work requirement, then it isn’t a free tuition plan as Clinton’s campaign claims it to be. That would be true only if you consider the work requirement to be unpaid labor. Clinton’s campaign claimed that the plan was directly a result of her meeting with Sanders in June. However, Sanders has spoken of tuition-free education at public universities as a right. Clinton’s idea suggests that college education is a privilege students must work for.

This proposal comes from Clinton’s earlier assertion that education should be affordable to those willing to work for it. One of the problems with this assertion is that it assumes students who don’t work for 10 hours a week tend not to value their education. If this were true, then it suggests that such students need to be whipped into working in order to appreciate their time at college.

Second, Clinton's statement on who deserves affordable education also assumes that college education is an unburdened experience, with very little schoolwork to do and plenty of free time. This is not necessarily true for every student, especially for medical students and those studying in the quarter system, who many UCLA students can relate to. A student who doesn’t have the time to work for 10 hours per week wouldn't benefit from Clinton’s plan. The work requirement overemphasizes the monetary value of such a job compared to the entire cost of a college education.

Additionally, Clinton’s campaign adds that there will be a “push to expand work opportunities that build career skills and introduce students of all backgrounds to public service careers.” If the state governments will be finding job opportunities for every student eligible for free tuition, they will also have to keep in mind students’ convenience. Balancing a stressful job with the normal college routine would make college graduation more prohibitive for the students Clinton wants to help.

One example of such a system is the City University of New York. In 1996, college students benefiting from the governmental financial assistance had to work in public service jobs for 20 hours per week. The number of students in this scheme dropped from 27,000 to 22,000 in a year. Unfavorable working hours and jobs located inconveniently far from campuses acted as deterrents, preventing poorer students from graduating college.

With the government setting the number of work hours needed, it is also unknown whether there would be any other work restrictions aside from the number of hours. The time requirement can pose an issue for students who already work, but for less than 10 hours a week, as they might have to find another job just to meet the requirements of Clinton's plan. In addition, students who pursue unpaid internships might have to come up with more free time to work a second job.

Additionally, working might be unfeasible for some students depending upon their schedules or how the government provides the job opportunities. They shouldn't miss out on assistance just because of this.

Proponents of workfare systems would argue that if students expect assistance from the government, then they will have to chip in by working for it. However, Clinton's campaign has branded its plan as one where certain students will pay "no tuition," not one where students have to work to pay their tuition. The proposal should be called what it is then – a workfare tuition scheme.

If Clinton wants to make college graduation less elusive, the proposal should be remedied to allow students the option of not having to work for 10 hours per week. To make up for this in a politically feasible way, the amount of aid provided by the government would then be cut by the average amount a student would make in such a job. For some students, this would reduce Clinton's plan from free tuition to reduced, but it would eliminate the government's mandatory work requirement while keeping a substantial portion of the benefits.

A workfare scheme to provide tuition to students would be an unnecessary, overbearing move by the government. Students should be free to choose whether they want to work or not without losing out on all the benefits.

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Opinion staff columnist

Shetty is a senior staffer in the Opinion section and a staff representative on the Daily Bruin Editorial Board. He was an assistant Opinion editor in the 2017-2018 school year and previously contributed as an opinion columnist. He writes about topics including the undergraduate student government and the UCLA administration.


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  • garyfouse

    Maybe students can give speeches at UCLA like Clinton did. That way they could work off a quarter million bucks of debt with one speech.

  • Robert D. Skeels * rdsathene

    Excellent piece. Clinton’s plan would not help the majority of students. Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party has a much better plan, I encourage my fellow Bruins to check out her platform:

    -RDS, UCLA ’14; Juris Doctor Candidate at PCL ’18.