Why Does Hillary Clinton Champion Universal Pre-K, But Disregard Universal College?

Hillary Clinton has made universal pre-k a major part of her campaign platform. She has thrown her support behind this ambitious policy proposal because she believes that it would offer “better prospects for lifelong economic opportunity.”

She laments how “only 55 percent of all America’s 3 and 4 year olds are enrolled in preschool.” And predictably, lower income families are the most affected. Only 64 percent of four-year-olds from families making 50-60k a year are able to attend preschool. That’s well below the rate of attendance for families making more than $100,000 (89 percent).

What’s worse? The rest of the developed world is passing us by. As Clinton notes, “many of our economic competitors are racing ahead. They are making big investments in preschool and early education.” If America wants to remain competitive, she implores that we must “ensure that every 4-year-old in America has access to high-quality preschool in the next 10 years.”

Her argument for universalizing pre-k is extremely well made and convincing. I agree with her – “every child should have the tools and skills to thrive in tomorrow’s economy, especially those kids from our most vulnerable and at-risk communities.”

But couldn’t all of these points be equally applied to free college?

In fact, the Bernie Sanders campaign uses Hillary’s exact arguments for universal pre-k to advocate for tuition free college. According to Sanders, “in a highly competitive global economy, we need the best-educated workforce in the world.” Sound familiar?

Bernie’s free college plan would originate from federal funding, where “the federal government would pay $2 in matching funds for every dollar states spend on making tuition free at public colleges and universities. In a similar vein, Hillary’s pre-k plan would be achieved “by providing new federal funding for states that expand access to high quality preschool.” Their implementation is nearly indistinguishable.

At this point, Hillary would probably retort that implementing free college would be far more difficult than universalizing pre-k. This, however, would be a broad generalization that doesn’t match the reality. For there are those within the pre-k movement which highlight the difficulty of administering universal pre-k.

As Darleen Opfer, the education director at the policy think tank RAND Coproration, has stated: “You have to look at the trade-off. If you have a state that can’t afford high-quality preschool for everyone, where does the investment really make sense? To me it’s not an issue of whether or not [pre-k is] a good thing. The clashes come over how to do it.”

It’s not just implementation either. Hillary loves using the line that “I don’t think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college.” Yet once again, couldn’t this same critique of free college by applied to free pre-k? Or free community college (a policy she supports as well)? Or hell, even free high school?

Look, every politician maintains inconsistent beliefs. They do so not because they are malevolent, but because they are human. We should always give (slight) wiggle room to politicians to “evolve” on issues and resolve their inconsistent positions. After all, we give family and friends this same benefit of the doubt.

This inconsistency, however, seems egregious. Clinton fancies herself a “progressive who gets things done” – a clear implication that she does not let lofty ideals get in the way of practical policy implementation. By advocating for universal pre-k and community college, while at the same time disregarding universal college, Hillary Clinton doesn’t sound like a pragmatist, she sounds like a disingenuous politician. It highlights a lack of imagination from her campaign and from the candidate herself.

Free college at public institutions will happen – it is only a matter of time. Now, as Hanna Brooks Olsen pointed out yesterday, free college is not a magic wand. It will not solve every problem and even if implemented there will still be systemic roadblocks which will hinder the progress of low income Americans. But the same critique can be applied to universal pre-k. And Hillary Clinton knows that.

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Nick Cassella
Nick Cassella graduated from the University of St Andrews in Scotland in 2014. After graduating, he worked on the Initiative 594 campaign before joining Civic Ventures, where he now manages Civic Skunk Works' social media presence.