Clinton Jumps on the Free College Bandwagon, but Will Her Plan Work?

The presumptive Democratic nominee hopes to eliminate in-state tuition for families earning less than $125,000.
(Photo: Ariel Skelley/Getty Images; inset: Donald Kravitz/Getty Images)
Jul 6, 2016· 4 MIN READ
Culture and education editor Liz Dwyer has written about race, parenting, and social justice for several national publications. She was previously education editor at Good.

Call it the influence of the Bernie Bros—or a recognition that the health of American economy rests on having a college-educated workforce. On Wednesday, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton released the New College Compact, a plan that would make college free for most Americans still working toward a bachelor’s degree and ease student loan repayment for folks who have already graduated.

By 2021, “Families with incomes up to $125,000 will pay no tuition at in-state public colleges and universities, which covers more than 80 percent of families,” according to the plan posted on Clinton’s website. Meanwhile, “families earning $85,000 or less will immediately be able to attend an in-state college or university without paying any tuition.” In response to the student debt crisis, “the plan will also take executive action to give borrowers a three-month moratorium on their federal student loan payments.”

A separate fact sheet reads, “Imagine what is possible in America if we tackle the runaway costs of higher education, make sure that students who start college can finish with a degree, and relieve the crushing burden of student debt.”

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Clinton’s willingness to imagine that possibility may surprise some Americans, given that she has heavily criticized Bernie Sanders’ proposals for free college for everyone. But Colin Seeberger, the strategic campaigns adviser for the education advocacy group The Young Invincibles, told TakePart that given the soaring costs of college and skyrocketing student debt, Clinton’s shift is not surprising.

“We’ve seen tuition and fees go up by nearly 30 percent since the Great Recession, and now the average student walks off a college campus [owing] roughly $30,000 in loans. Young voters are demanding change, and they’re ready to put their votes behind it,” said Seeberger. “According to a poll we conducted recently, more than 60 percent of millennial voters say that combatting student debt will be a major influencer in determining their vote this fall.”

Clinton’s adoption of Sanders’ free college idea—albeit in a more limited fashion, given the $125,000 income cap—underscores the importance of higher education for all Americans, Julie Ajinkya, the vice president of applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, told TakePart.

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“This matters to young people, but it also matters to everyone. We have increasing numbers of adults with some college and no degree who are also interested in finishing their degrees,” Ajinkya said. “Higher ed matters to everyone because we know it’s the ladder to opportunity and the middle class. When college is no longer affordable to everyone, you’re shutting off that opportunity to huge sets of society.”

With total student loan debt topping $1.3 trillion, plenty of Americans are keeping up with the tuition increases and costs of housing by borrowing money. To that end, Natalia Abrams, the executive director of Student Debt Crisis, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit that seeks to reform the way higher education is paid for, applauded Clinton’s focus on people who are still in school as well as folks who are repaying student debt.

“One focuses on young people, and the other is largely for people over the age of 30, and people who have been paying for their debt for 10 or 20 years,” Abrams said. “We have 43 million student loan borrowers,” and many of them have families, “which means their debt indirectly affects 150 to 200 million people.”

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There’s no better proof that a college education is an essential ticket to the middle class than data released last week showing that only 1 percent of jobs in the post–Great Recession recovery have gone to Americans with just a high school diploma. But that reality is a tough pill to swallow when people see college costs increasing year after year.

“The price of higher education is being driven up by two factors: Institutions keep getting more expensive to run every year, and states haven’t been able to keep funding the increasing expense of higher education,” Will Doyle, an education policy researcher at Vanderbilt University, wrote in an email to TakePart.

“The price of higher education does not have to keep going up—these price increases are driven by decisions being made by institutional and state leaders,” Doyle wrote. In April a study he coauthored found that college has become less affordable in 45 states since the Great Recession.

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Doyle noted that one gap in Clinton’s plan is that it “doesn’t seem to recognize the very different ways in which states are funding higher education.” As a result, it could provide “much more funding for states where they have historically done little to fund higher education.”

New Hampshire, for example, currently “provides $2,591 per student in state funding, while New Mexico provides $8,800—more than three times as much. In-state tuition and required fees at public four-years in New Hampshire is $14,538, and in New Mexico it’s $6,003,” he wrote.

Clinton’s plan for free tuition would have to be approved by Congress, and then individual states would need to opt in. Doyle posited that the varied response to the Affordable Care Act could give an indication of how this plan would be received.

“Few analysts expected truly widespread opposition to state level exchanges, and almost no one thought that there would be widespread resistance to the Medicaid expansion. The exchanges were taken up in many fewer states than expected, and many states have refused the Medicaid expansion. If this free tuition plan is received in the states like the Affordable Care Act, then it will be in real trouble,” wrote Doyle.

Doyle suggested that a more viable alternative is to “create a joint-federal partnership focused on need-based student financial aid, with states being incentivized to match federal funding. This would drop tuition to [zero] for many students, while still not penalizing those states that have already made commitments to making college affordable.”

Ajinkya also cautioned that the public has to pay attention to what college affordability actually means.

“It’s not limited to just paying for tuition and fees. We have the cost of books, child care, we have transportation for folks to actually get to school, housing costs”—in addition into a number of other costs that need to get bundled into our idea of college affordability, she said.

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Although free tuition will undoubtedly help plenty of families, there’s also the reality that students of color and kids from lower-income backgrounds are still less likely to go to college, and may already have tuition covered by Pell grants or other aid.

“This proposal cannot operate in a vacuum,” Ajinkya said. “For higher enrollment, we need to see targeted resources going toward those students instead of blanketed proposals.” She pointed to better apprenticeships and mentorships as examples.

Ultimately, she said, “while this is certainly a tantalizing headline because everyone loves the idea of free college, the devil is in the details. Nothing is really for free. Someone is going to have to pay for this, and this means that we just have to do better on keeping overall costs low.”