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how to make college affordable
Pam Jones of Learning in Motion preschool leads children in an exercise that incorporates movement with academics. Credit: AP Photo/Record Searchlight, Andreas Fuhrmann

A fight between Democratic presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton over how to make college affordable bears a striking resemblance to an old debate on the other end of the education pipeline: Should publicly funded preschool be “universal” or targeted only to the neediest kids?

Clinton has blasted Sanders for a higher education plan that would send Donald Trump’s kids to college for free. (Sanders’ goal is to make undergraduate education at any public university free for everyone, at a cost of about $70 billion.) Her own plan would cost half as much and only target middle- and lower-income families.

Early education advocates have been down this road many times already, and several had opinions about the pros and cons of universal vs. targeted as the debate hits higher education.

Related: Sanders’ free college plan would take from the rich to give to the rich

In early education, universal pre-K — or, the Bernie Sanders approach — has had some political success. New York City launched free pre-K for every 4-year-old. In Washington, D.C., 3-year-olds get to go free, too. In New Jersey, a lawsuit made free preschool available for all kids living in the state’s poorest cities and towns. And Oklahoma, among the reddest of red states, has had universal pre-K for more than 15 years.

“‘Beggars can’t be choosers’ — that’s not a good approach to education. I want the most advantaged people in the community lobbying the politicians in charge of these things to ensure that it’s high quality.”

“I think the New York City approach is exactly the right thing,” said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research. “There is this approach that government should only do things for poor people and everybody else should be off on their own. I think that that’s not a good approach to education. Education in the United States is already more unequal and uneven than most places in the world.”

“I think it is a problem if people view [preschool] as charity,” he added. “‘Beggars can’t be choosers’ — that’s not a good approach to education. I want the most advantaged people in the community lobbying the politicians in charge of these things to ensure that it’s high quality.”

The democratic appeal of universal coverage has even given the idea traction in more conservative places where government spending is anathema to voters.

But Chester Finn, president emeritus of the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a former Reagan administration official, said “Hillary is on the right side of this one.” With universal programs, he added, “You end up with a mile-wide, inch-deep program. It’s politically appealing. But in my opinion it wastes money for the non-needy. It’s the same in higher ed as well.”

Funds for preschool are limited, because even though American voters say they love early education, the federal government still spends less money on it than on higher education. The federal Head Start program, for example, costs about $8 billion for nearly 1 million low-income preschoolers, while the Pell Grant program costs more than $30 billion for nearly 9 million low-income college students.

Related: Voters agree, candidates should talk preschool

Although both systems are made up of a mix of private and public providers, the comparison between the two ends of the education pipeline has its limits. Preschool often doubles as childcare for working parents, and can also be much more expensive per child than college.

“[With universal] you end up with a mile-wide, inch-deep program. It’s politically appealing. But in my opinion it wastes money for the non-needy. It’s the same in higher ed as well.”

how to make college affordable
Bernie Sanders and Hillary Rodham Clinton argue during a Democratic presidential primary debate, Saturday, Nov. 14, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. Credit: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

“You can put hundreds of 18-year-olds in a room, and you can only put 10 to 18 4-year-olds in a room — with a teacher and probably two aides,” said Kris Perry, executive director of the First Five Years Fund, a national advocacy group. “If we said in the United States we’re going to make sure every 4-year-old gets public education, the price tag [would be] north of $30 billion. There isn’t the will to pay for it.”

She also stressed that calls for universal pre-K tend to muster support to send only 4-year-olds to school, when most of the research supporting investments in early education, including that by Nobel-prize winning economist James Heckman, looks at very intensive (and very expensive) programs that start at birth.

That’s why, these days, advocates use the term “universal” mostly as a P.R. tactic to help them build support for early education, said HyeSook Chung, executive director of DC Action for Children, an advocacy and research group. But many don’t actually believe in free preschool for everyone. Instead, early education groups increasingly promote what they call “universal access,” in which government funds preschool seats for many poor and some middle-class kids, leaving wealthier families to pay their own way.

The Obama administration’s early education plan, for example, known as the “Preschool for All Initiative,” and frequently described as “universal pre-K,” actually isn’t a plan for government-funded, free preschool for every child. Rather, according to the White House’s description, it would “provide all low- and moderate-income 4-year-olds with high-quality preschool, while encouraging states to serve additional 4-year-olds from middle-class families.” (Clinton’s “universal” early education plan builds on Obama’s, according to her campaign site.)

“In early education there are children who need a light touch. They’re from very wealthy, high resourced families and they’re ready for school with very little additional support,” said Perry. “Then there are children from very low resourced, very needy families that need a high touch. And that difference should drive the conversation.”

“I don’t think it’s that different of a conversation in higher ed,” she added. “There are kids from very different backgrounds who need different support freshman year.”

Related: US falls behind other nations in the global knowledge economy, says 46-country report

Barnett argues that a tiered-payment approach like Clinton’s might make more sense in higher education, even if he believes Sanders’ everyone-gets-in-free strategy is better for early education.

Free pre-K for every 4-year-old would cost “north of $30 billion,” according to one expert, while the Bernie Sanders universal college proposal would cost $70 billion.

“Parents are in a different place in their labor market trajectory when their kids are in college,” he said. “It’s more practical to have students and parents pay for higher education. And you have this theoretical rationale, where they’re the ones who get most of the benefits.”

In the early years of a child’s life, by contrast, parents are likely to be making less money than they will be by the time their kids reach college age. (When kids are little, affordable preschool can mean the difference between working and not working for many parents, especially mothers.) At the same time, Barnett argues, the benefits to the public of early education are more clear-cut because of research showing improvements in the long-term outcomes for kids, so it makes more sense for taxpayers to foot the bill for preschool.

“The cost savings in K-12, the reduced costs of the criminal justice system, the reduced health care costs — all of those are public benefits,” he said. “Most of the return in investing in higher education is private.”

One thing nearly everyone agrees on: At both ends of the spectrum, more attention (and money) needs to be focused on improving the quality of educational options.

If that comes at the expense of providing free college access to richer kids, so be it, said Chung.

Often lower-income students “don’t get the supports needed once they get [to college], and they end up dropping out. Money saved not doing a universal program could go toward making sure more low-income students actually succeed in college once they’re there,” she said. “In higher ed and early education, children from deep cycles of poverty just need so much more.”

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