No, the HOPE Scholarship Didn’t Kill Great Society Liberalism

An op-ed argues that merit-based student financial aid supported by Zell Miller and Bill Clinton betrayed low-income students. That’s true only in a zero-sum world. Photo: Getty Images

As a journalist who has been burned by headline writers myself, I certainly don’t blame Jonathan Cohen for the headline the Washington Post chose for his op-ed column criticizing Zell Miller and Bill Clinton for the former’s HOPE scholarship program that the latter adapted at the federal level: “The Program That Killed Liberalism.” Cohen does not go that laughably far.

But he does say this about the famous Miller initiative that offered free college tuition to Georgians who maintained a 3.0 average in high school:

Miller’s advocacy for HOPE in Georgia signaled the decline of Great Society-era Democratic politics and the rise of a new, middle-class-oriented centrist liberalism focused on using the government to foster a competitive meritocracy rather than to enact social justice and economic fairness. While Miller’s rhetoric focused on the opportunity offered by initiatives like HOPE, the new emphasis on competition provided inherent advantages to privileged students, many of whom did not need government aid. In that way, HOPE embodies the transformation of liberalism that reshaped the Democratic Party and, ultimately, exacerbated economic inequality.

Cohen certainly offers a challenge to the conventional wisdom that HOPE was Miller’s great progressive accomplishment, to be balanced against his later political apostasies. That is presumably why he, and the Post, decided it was an argument worth making immediately after Miller’s death. And Cohen is offering a new wrinkle to the hoary argument that Democratic “centrists” like Miller and Clinton in important respects sold out traditional liberalism and its constituencies. Indeed, he suggests that HOPE was a logical step in Miller’s march to the reactionary side of politics.

To quibble a bit, Cohen does not mention that in addition to the HOPE scholarship, Miller’s lottery-for-education initiative also created and funded a voluntary pre-K system, a pretty big step for a conservative state like Georgia in the 1990s, and one that certainly benefited students from lower socio-economic strata. And he might have conceded that Miller’s decision to highly target lottery funds instead of just making it available for the state education budget (which Cohen considers a better option) was probably responsible for the passage of the ballot initiative creating the whole system.

Another basic relevant fact that Cohen doesn’t address is that the public colleges and universities which mainly benefit from state-sponsored “merit” scholarships like HOPE are already heavily subsidized for all students, not just those who meet the “merit-based” criteria. One reason HOPE worked in Georgia is that the state (which had, and has, relatively high per-pupil higher ed spending) kept in-state tuition low. So the need for the need-based financial aid Cohen wants was lower to begin with.

But the most important assumption Cohen makes is that there is some sort of zero-sum trade-off between merit-based and need-based financial aid. For one thing, the kind of merit that HOPE and similar initiatives (including the federal HOPE tax credit) reward is relatively broad-based and attainable. It’s based on maintaining a 3.0 high school (and later, college) G.P.A., which unlike, say, SAT scores, does not vary significantly according to a student’s family income. To the extent that programs like HOPE seem to benefit mostly middle-class students, that’s partly because of the availability of need-based federal Pell Grants to low-income students. But Cohen offers no evidence that either Miller or Clinton intended merit-based financial aid to redirect rather than expand public education spending, the better to improve its political durability.

Indeed, the strangest thing about Cohen’s argument is the idea that “middle-class oriented” programs represent some sort of repudiation of what he calls “Great Society-era Democratic politics,” and a way station to unprincipled centrism.

The crown jewel of the Great Society was Medicare, a universal entitlement program with few means-tested features. It is perpetually more popular than its need-based cousin the Medicaid program, which is one reason why Democratic progressives — not centrists, but progressives — want to make Medicare the basis for an equally universal and non-means-tested single-payer health care system. In this respect it builds on the philosophy that made Social Security the crown jewel of the New Deal, which was always immensely more popular than its need-based stepchild, Aid to Families with Dependent Children, the cash “welfare” program that Clinton allowed Republicans to kill in 1996.

Yes, Social Security and Medicare are universal, not “merit-based” programs (though you can make the argument that beneficiaries think of themselves as having earned their benefits through a lifetime of contributions and work). But if deliberately including middle- or upper-middle-class in programs whose benefits they do not strictly speaking need is a betrayal of liberalism, then the most liberal of liberals aren’t liberal at all.

In other words, there has never been a time when the Democratic Party has not been engaged in “middle-class-oriented” social policies. And in recent years it has often been Republicans–occasionally with “centrist” Democratic support–talking about means-testing entitlements (especially Medicare) to howls of outrage from progressives.

There is definitely a case to be made that the HOPE scholarship and merit-based higher education aid are not universal enough. Approximately 36 percent of Georgia in-state college students have benefited from HOPE or its more highly conditional counterpart, the Zell Miller Scholarship. But it’s been 20 years since Miller was governor, so it seems a bit strange to blame him for the precise shape of the program today. And even if a significant share of the beneficiaries of HOPE (and the federal HOPE tax credit Clinton championed) might have made it to college anyway, the assistance certainly reduced student indebtedness while pulling a lot of talented Georgia students back into the state’s own public colleges and universities.

To be clear about it, HOPE also got Zell Miller reelected as governor of Georgia in the huge Republican year of 1994, just as Bill Clinton’s championship of “people who work hard and play by the rules” got him reelected two years later. There’s never been a time when successful Democratic politics didn’t depend on middle-class benefits and middle-class votes. In states all over the country, and in Washington, we’re getting a taste today of what needy people can expect under genuinely conservative governance. If Democrats need to acknowledge the merit of middle-class kids to keep the reactionary wolf from the door, so be it.

The HOPE Scholarship Didn’t Kill Great Society Liberalism