Networks Hide $80 Billion, $700 Billion Price Tags of ‘Free’ Tuition Proposals

College tuition is like lunch: it’s never free.

But that hasn’t stopped the media and liberal politicians from claiming it could be. On Jan. 31, 2016, USA Today reported that some states were considering “free” tuition policies in 2016 saying, “Free college is not just a pipe dream in this country.”

In 2015, Democratic politicians including President Obama promised “free” tuition that the White House admitted would cost $80 billion over a decade. Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had a tuition proposal that would cost $700 billion over a decade. Yet, the media played along, repeatedly describing proposals for government-provided tuition as “free” and rarely mentioning the billions it would cost taxpayers.

ABC, NBC, and CBS morning and evening news shows promoted the lie of “free” tuition and mostly left viewers in the dark on how much it would cost. Viewers heard government-provided tuition described as “free” in most stories and more than 8 times as often as they heard any cost estimates (17 to 2).

Many of the network’s mentions of tuition came through coverage of Bernie Sanders. In a particularly egregious case, CBS correspondent Nancy Cordes boosted Sanders and defended his socialist agenda against criticism from the Washington Post’s editorial board.  

During the Jan. 28, 2016 broadcast of Evening News, Cordes said of Sanders: “His unapologetically liberal views attract supporters by the thousands. But in a stinging takedown of Bernie Sanders, the Washington Post editorial board called it an act.”

To balance the Post’s criticism that Sander’s was obscuring the cost of his proposals, Cordes turned to Sanders himself for comment. She also defended him saying, “Senator Sanders has released some details. He’d finance free public college tuition with a tax on what he calls ‘Wall Street speculators.’”

“I think we can convince the American people in the year 2016, all of our kids should be able to go to public colleges and universities tuition-free,” Sanders said in a clip played by CBS.

Rather than balancing Sanders’ claim with a comment about how much his plan would cost, Cordes suspiciously commented that the Post’s editorial “plays right into a case that Clinton makes at campaign events like this one all the time.”

ABC Skips $700B Cost, Suggests Sander’s ‘Free’ College Plan Helps Him with Voters

Before he started his campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders, Vt., proposed spending hundreds of billions of dollars to make four years of tuition free at public colleges. According to USA Today, that would cost taxpayers the outrageous sum of $700 billion over a decade. That would translate into approximately $2,195 per American, but the networks didn’t tell their viewers that.

Instead, ABC’s George Stephanopoulos suggested during the Oct. 18, 2015 broadcast of Good Morning America, that Sanders’ promise of free tuition made socialism more appealing to the electorate. He cited a Gallup poll showing half the country opposed electing a socialist president, but then claimed Sanders is “redefining it.”

“But what you see Bernie Sanders doing out there is, is kinda redefining it. Saying you know, do you like Medicare? That’s got aspects of socialism. Do you like college, you know, tuition-free college? That’s got aspects of socialism to it. So he’s trying to specify what he means by that and it has not hurt him so far,” Stephanopoulos said.

Sanders also touted “free” tuition on NBC’s and CBS’s morning shows, but was not asked about the actual cost.

NBC Claims ‘Free’ College is ‘A Goal Everyone Can Agree On’

Rather than a critical examination of the president’s plan, NBC practically jumped on the bandwagon.

Nightly News reported on Jan. 9, 2015, Obama was rolling out his plan to provide community college tuition “free” of charge. “Two years of college will become as free and universal as high school is today,” Obama claimed, in video NBC included that night.

Afterwards, reporter Chris Jansing interviewed a cheerful Akita Hodge who dreamed about what a degree might do for her. “To have that great job, to actually own that business, to go somewhere bigger in life,” Hodge said.

“Stated simply like that, it’s a goal everyone can agree on,” Jansing said.

Although the media reported on the president’s grand promise, the majority of those stories failed to admit that The White House itself said Obama’s tuition plan would cost taxpayers $80 billion over a decade.

In fact, viewers didn’t hear that $80 billion figure at all from the networks. Instead, the networks downplayed the cost to taxpayers by citing just a portion — the federal cost of $60 billion —  knocking 25 percent off the cost. The network stories, including Jansing’s Jan. 9, report completely ignored the additional $20 billion state cost. All of which would fall on taxpayers.

NBC Today co-anchor Matt Lauer also missed opportunities to ask key members of the Obama administration about the cost of his supposedly “free” tuition policy. Lauer interviewed both White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and Vice President Joe Biden after stories mentioning the plan for government-provided tuition.

Lauer interviewed Vice President Joe Biden on Jan. 21, 2015, after NBC’s report about State of the Union address. Instead of asking Biden about the expense, Lauer complimented the vice president, and wondered whether he could use his charm to get legislation through a Republican-controlled Congress.

“You’re known as a guy who can work a room. Boy, are you good at that? Do you think you could work that room, Vice President Biden? Could you bring those people in that room together to work for the American people?” Lauer asked.

Instead of complimenting Biden and neglecting the multi-billion dollar price tag, Lauer should have exposed the bank-breaking lie of “free” tuition.

McDonough complained on Jan. 20, 2015, about the rising cost of college which was ironic considering that the president’s plan to boost federal aid would likely inflate the cost of tuition, not relieve it. In a 2015 study, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York found a positive relationship between higher student aid and the cost of tuition, suggesting that aid led to higher costs.

According to Forbes, the Federal Reserve “found that for every dollar that Pell Grants are increased, college tuition goes up by 55 cents. In other words, the students pay an extra 55 cents in tuition for every dollar of Pell Grant they receive, meaning they only save 45 cents in terms of out-of-pocket costs.”

Methodology: MRC Business analyzed Nexis transcripts from ABC, CBS and NBC morning and evening news programs (This Morning, Good Morning America, Today, World News, Evening News and Nightly News) that contained the word “tuition” between Jan. 1, 2015, and Feb. 13, 2016, to find the news reports about proposed tuition policies. If someone described the “tuition” as free, MRC counted that as a mention of free tuition. In total, 17 of the 19 stories or news briefs about tuition described it as free. Only two stories included cost estimates.

Tell the Truth 2016

2016 Presidential Higher Education Broadcast Television Good Morning America CBS Evening News NBC Nightly News Today Matt Lauer George Stephanopoulos Nancy Cordes
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