Clinton campaign calls for mostly tuition-free public higher education: first analysis

Hillary Clinton college students official websiteIn a major campaign move with powerful implications for higher education, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton offered a new plan for college and university finance.   According to Inside Higher Ed, this includes several major proposals.

  1. Tuition at public colleges and universities would be free for students whose families make less than $85,000 per year.  That threshold will gradually increase, to reach $125,000 in 2021.  According to the campaign web site today,

    by 2021, families with income up to $125,000 will pay no tuition at in-state four-year public colleges and universities—covering more than 80 percent of all families. And from the start of the plan, every student from a family making $85,000 a year or less will be able to go to an in-state four-year public college or university without paying tuition. Students at community college will also pay no tuition.

  2. Pell Grants would be available during summer terms, rather than just the normal fall and spring school year.
  3. A three-month moratorium on debt repayment to let borrowers (re)negotiate terms.  I can’t tell if this is for all borrowers, and, if so, when it would start, or if it only applies to new graduates.

It’s an ambitious plan with high aims, according to this statement:

It is imperative that the next president put forward a bold plan to make debt-free college available to all. My New College Compact will do just that — by making sure that working families can send a child or loved one to college tuition-free and by giving student debt-holders immediate relief.

Some first thoughts as reactions ripple across various media domains:

    • This is another sign of the Sanders campaign driving Clinton to the left.  While these proposals are not as ambitious as Bernie’s, they are definitely more expansive than those Clinton issued earlier in this campaign.  The political calculus is clear, an attempt by the Clinton campaign to win over younger (under 45 years old) votes previously supporting Sanders.  One nice detail from IHE: “[a] Clinton campaign official said that the plan came out of Clinton’s recent meeting with Sanders…”  Sanders then tweeted support of the plan: “I applaud @HillaryClinton for the very bold initiative she has just brought forth for the financing of higher education.”"I applaud @HillaryClinton for the very bold initiative she has just brought forth for the financing of higher education."
    • Who pays for this new academic financial order?  It looks like a mix of state and federal funding, which seems consistent with earlier Clinton plans.  According to the campaign site, Washington takes the lead.  “The federal government will make a major investment in the New College Compact by providing grants to states that commit to these goals, and by cutting interest rates on loans.”  I can’t find amounts for those grants, nor a political plan for getting them through Congress and into a budget.  Last year Clinton’s smaller plan spoke of $350 billion.
    • The states must also buy in, and here I’m very skeptical: “States will have to step up and meet their obligation to invest in higher education by maintaining current levels of higher education funding and reinvesting over time.”  I can’t find figures or political plans on how this would transpire.  Many American state governments are already in some form of cost-cutting or austerity mode.  Demographic pressures (i.e., aging) are driving up state spending on Medicare and Medicaid; additionally, worries about crime are’t exactly going to let state legislators cut monies aimed at prisons and police.   Could we see a red versus blue Affordable Care Act implementation, with the wealthier and bluer states buying in, while the others make political hay out of resisting?
    • The Clinton proposals still insist on getting academia to be more efficient.  “Colleges and universities will be accountable for improving outcomes and controlling costs to ensure that tuition is affordable and that students who invest in college leave with a degree.”  I’m not clear how this would happen, since the United States Department of Education has little clout here.  The Obama administration has pressured academia hard and continually to reform, even fiercely, without much impact; would a president Clinton continue this approach, or offer some new tack?
    • The proposal addresses public campuses, but only those in the same state as a student’s residence.  Note the key language here:
      "Hillary heard you: College costs are too high in America. It's time to fix it."

      Hillary heard you: College costs are too high in America. It’s time to fix it.
      Hillary will eliminate college tuition for families making up to $125,000 at in-state public colleges and universities.

      Today most state campuses openly recruit students from other states, precisely to benefit from higher out-of-state tuition. Will campuses receive state and/or local and/or federal funding at that level, or only at in-state amounts? Will state legislatures support this as a way of compelling their campuses to teach their population?

    • The income threshold is consistent with earlier criticism of Sanders’ broader plan from the Clinton campaign and others.  It keeps taxpayers from funding wealthier students’ college bills.
    • What happens to other costs?  It would make all kinds of sense for campuses to hike non-tuition fees, for example.  Will a Clinton administration push for open education in order to reduce textbook costs – indeed, will her campaign raise this to win over young and/or techie voters?

What do you make of the Clinton proposals?

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8 Responses to Clinton campaign calls for mostly tuition-free public higher education: first analysis

  1. Ken O'Connor says:

    Making something “free” is really a shift of cost burdens somewhere else. Where can it go? Instead of making an expensive thing free, why not allow schools to naturally reduce their costs, like for example, by winding down the federal loan program. There’s plenty of money in the free market to invest towards building a future for education, but claiming to be able to make it “free” is nonsense.

    • Good points, Ken. “Free” here means “massively funded by the states and federal government.”
      But if the federal loan program shrank, without cutting tuition, how would a good number of people be able to get to college?

      • Ken O'Connor says:

        Great question that leads to the greater issue. The federal loan program is in need of re-evaluation given the realities of college education. Higher ed is changing, shouldn’t the way it’s paid for be re-evaluated as well? I think the appropriate discussion is to consider if providing guaranteed loans for education is creating the desired affect for educational institutions and students alike, and if not, how can this be improved? There is natural organic demand for education services, and plenty of money in the private sector ready to fund it intelligently and respond quickly to failures when necessary, but that market has been crowded out by federal loan dollars and a one-size fits all underwriting model that no longer fits the wide variety of educational opportunities today. (Grad Plus Loans and a 20+ year repayment plan, is that really the best option?) The simple solution is to reduce guaranteed federal loans, and allow other forms of payment to rise without huge taxpayer subsidies attached to it. I believe a good number of people can maintain their college attendance utilizing the advancements made in lending technology outside the federal loan program.

  2. is there some plan to control the cost of textbooks?

  3. In general, I’m very much in favor of the idea, but I need to study up on her plan to find answers to a questions such as:

    1. To what extent does the money to eliminate the cost of tuition go directly to students (say in the form of Pell grants), and to what extent does the money go to the public universities?

    If the money goes directly to the universities, then it sounds as if public universities can still charge tuition, but they can only charge out-of-state students and students with parents making more than $125,000 (i.e. affluent students).

    Some public schools can attract a substantial number of out-of-state students and affluent students to help generate revenue to cover costs that keep rising for some reason. Others cannot.
    Those that cannot may resist the idea that the state is telling them they have to live on the money the state provides to educate non-affluent, in-state students.

    2. What about textbooks?

    Will the plan cover textbooks?

    Is there some plan to control the cost of textbooks?

    Remember, faculty assign textbooks, but they don’t have to pay for them.

    I doubt that the plan is to let faculty write their own textbook just for their own course, then let them charge whatever they want, and then increase Pell grant funding to cover the cost whatever it might be. (Many schools already put restrictions on this sort of behavior.)

    Usually, the cost of textbooks is not included in tuition. Perhaps the plan calls for giving students Pell grants to help cover (completely cover?) the cost of textbooks.
    If students still need to pay for their textbooks, then is there some plan to control the cost of textbooks?

  4. A comment from a friend, lost during a WordPress goof:
    ” I worry a bit about the cap. It will mean that only relatively wealthy people will have to pay tuition, and they will be more likely to go private. Also, if there is no incentive to maintain the current public support for those tuitions, they will skyrocket, making such defection to privates more likely. You end up with even more of a public-private divide.

    Better would be to make it tuition-free for everyone. If Clinton is worried about Trump’s kids going to school for free, tax those earning >85K (or 125K) more. Result: less of an administrative burden (imagine it: show your residency status and you’re done!), reducing costs on that end, mixing of the kids of the wealthy and middle-class to drive those networks, etc. Just Makes Sense.”

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