Hillary Clinton Feels The Bern On Tuition-Free College For Millions
Posted By Derek Johnson on July 6, 2016 at 4:41 pm
During the Democratic presidential debates, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton frequently lambasted the tuition-free college plan of her primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, D-VT. “I also believe in affordable college, but I don’t believe in free college, because every expert that I have talked to says ‘Look, how will you ever control the costs?’” Clinton said in February.
Now Clinton may be Feeling the Bern, as her campaign announced a shift in her higher education plan Wednesday that would mirror Sanders’ tuition-free college approach for public universities for families that make less than $125,000. In addition, Clinton also proposes a return to year-round Pell Grants to help students finish degrees faster.
Sanders, in a press release, praised the shift, which reportedly came about at his urging after the candidates met privately following the Washington, D.C. presidential primary. “I want to take this opportunity to applaud Secretary Clinton for the very bold initiative she has just brought forth today for the financing of higher education,” Sanders said. “This proposal combines some of the strongest ideas she fought for during the campaign with some of the principles that I fought for. The final product is a result of the work of both campaigns.”
More similar than different
In substance, Clinton and Sanders’ plans for college affordability have always been more similar than the candidates let on during an often-bruising primary. Both would seek to funnel massive amounts of federal subsidies to states in order to dramatically reduce or eliminate the need for students to finance their higher education through debt. The main differences were cost and simplicity. Clinton’s plan was budgeted at $350 billion over 10 years while Sanders’ proposed $700 billion over that same time frame. While Sanders’ plan would essentially pay states to reduce tuition to zero, Clinton’s original plan focused on reducing debt-financing while still requiring families to contribute based on income.
“Clinton’s distinction is that no student will need to borrow for tuition, fees or books. This leaves open the potential for wealthy families to contribute to their kids’ college, but it also ensures that for low-income students, the results are effectively the same as Sanders’ plan,” Mark Huelsman, senior analyst at the left-leaning policy think tank Demos, wrote in a March op-ed for U.S. News and World Report. “In other words, if students do not have the means to contribute to tuition bills, they will not have to borrow, and their entire tuition bill will be subsidized.”
Sanders’ proposal would also have made public college tuition-free for Americans at all income levels, a point that Clinton often mocked on the campaign trail.
“I disagree with free college for everybody. I don’t think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump’s kids to college,” said Clinton during a debate last November. “It think it ought to be a compact [where] families contribute, kids contribute, and together, we want to make it possible for our new generation of young people to refinance their debt and not come out with debt in the future.”
Tuition-free college faces a steep hill
Before Wednesday’s announcement, Clinton had frequently criticized the tuition-free aspect of Sanders’ plan, calling it unrealistic and destined to fail in Congress and contrasting it with her debt-free plan.
“In my case, whether it’s health care, or getting us to debt-free tuition, or moving us toward paid family leave, I have been very specific about where I would raise the money, how much it would cost, and how I would move this agenda forward,” said Clinton during a Democratic debate in Milwaukee earlier this year. “So we have a special obligation to make clear what we stand for, which is why I think we should not make promises we can’t keep, because that will further, I think, alienate Americans from understanding and believing we can together make some real changes in people’s lives.”
The reality is that both Clinton and Sanders’ college affordability plans would face a steep obstacle in the form of congressional Republicans. There is virtually no appetite among the Republican-controlled House and Senate for the kind of spending and subsidies proposed by Clinton and Sanders to make tuition-free college possible.
Even significant gains in the upcoming election are unlikely to give Democrats the votes needed to pass such a massive overhaul in higher education funding. In the House, the Republican majority currently enjoys a 60-seat margin and is headed up by budget hawk and Speaker Paul Ryan, R-WI, who has called increasing federal subsidies a “contributing factor” to the student loan crisis.
“While students continue to chase skyrocketing tuition with ever higher levels of borrowing, economists such as Richard Vedder, have testified before Congress that the structure of the federal government’s aid programs is a key driver of higher tuition costs,” said Ryan. “In other words, some economists argue that the more funding Congress provides for student loans and grants, the more colleges and universities raise tuition.”
In the Senate, where Republicans hold a slimmer five-seat majority, a flip is more realistic, but even then any tuition-free college bill put forward by Democrats would face the imminent threat of a filibuster. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-TN, chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has often derided the notion that college is unaffordable, pointing to the wide variety of choice that students have in selecting a college and the litany of grants, scholarships and other subsidies that exist to ease the financial burden of higher education.
“It is never easy to pay for college, but it is easier than many think, and it is unfair and untrue to make students think that they can’t afford college…. The average debt of a graduate of a 4-year institution is about $27,000 – or about the same amount of the average new car loan,” Alexander said last year.
Alexander’s committee is in the midst of reauthorizing the Higher Education Act, the country’s preeminent law governing college and the financial aid system. In response to rising student debt, Alexander has favored policies that do not involve increased federal subsidies, such as making colleges and universities financially responsible for a portion of their students’ defaulted loans.
Alexander’s home state of Tennessee does offer free community college to in-state residents, but Alexander rejected a nationalized version of the plan proposed by the Obama administration and included in Clinton’s New College Compact.