Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders elevated the issue of college affordability with campaign proposals to make public higher education free for the vast majority of American families, but those prospects have faded with the election of Donald Trump.
Trump policy adviser Sam Clovis made it clear during the campaign that the Republican would not support free public higher education, calling the idea “absurd” in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. And with congressional Republicans calling for the federal government to dial back its role in education, the chances of a federal-state partnership to lower the cost of college appear slim.
Proponents of debt-free college, nevertheless, remain convinced that the movement still has legs. They say underlying concerns about skyrocketing student debt and price barriers in higher education are as relevant as ever. And even without federal support, they say, there’s enough momentum at the state level to keep the movement alive.
“We woke up Wednesday morning and the anxiety around college prices, around student debt didn’t go away,” said Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at the left-leaning think tank Demos who helped build the framework for the debt-free-college initiative. “The movement and the energy around meaningfully addressing college affordability doesn’t go away. The tactics just shift.”
Though Trump has largely been silent on higher-education policy, late in the campaign he promised to work with Congress to ensure universities, especially those with hefty endowments, are making a good-faith effort to reduce the cost of college and student debt in exchange for federal tax breaks and funding. Exactly what that would entail is unclear; Trump’s transition team, which did not respond to requests for comment, has been silent on the issue.
Clovis has argued that there is no need for the federal government to partner with states to make community college free, a plan heralded by President Obama, because two-year schools are already affordable.
There are at least 85 initiatives at the municipal and state level aiming to cover the cost of tuition at community colleges, according to the Upjohn Institute. Tennessee, Oregon and Minnesota have free community-college programs, with Tennessee’s model getting praise from Obama as a viable path for reducing higher-education costs.
“All we can do is go to the places where the conditions are friendly and see how this model works to the best of our ability,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher-education policy and sociology at Temple University. “And then when there are more-favorable conditions at the federal level, hopefully we’ll have evidence and the case will be strengthened.”
State legislatures have been paying greater attention to college costs as local employers demand some form of postsecondary education. Workforce development anchors proposals making their way through solidly red states such as Mississippi and Oklahoma. At least eight other states with varying political leanings are considering legislation, while dozens of cities are taking it upon themselves to establish programs, said Celeste Carruthers, an associate professor at the University of Tennessee.
“These programs are gaining popularity at the state level and would be hard to walk back even if there is no support at the federal level,” she said. “It is difficult to imagine how this patchwork of very different programs would have coalesced under one federal movement.”
Even as the idea of debt-free college gained national attention during the presidential campaign, it created division within higher education. Policy experts bristled at the idea of subsidizing the education of wealthy students and pointed out that tuition is just one of many expenses contributing to higher college costs. Others said public universities simply do not have the capacity to absorb the additional students who would be enticed to enroll and worried that covering tuition for everyone would be a waste of scarce resources. Clinton’s higher-education plan called for a $450 billion investment.
“It wasn’t a policy that was really ready for prime time at the federal level,” said Matthew Chingos, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute. “There were too many unanswered questions about whether this was the best use of limited public resources. If we’re going to make college free, that means doing less for low-income people.”
Leaders at private universities also took issue with the idea of the federal government giving public colleges and universities an advantage in enrolling students. Small liberal-arts schools fighting against waning enrollment and tuition revenue were especially vocal in their dissent.
Susan West Engelkemeyer, president of Nichols College in Massachusetts, wrote in The Washington Post that she had major concerns about the impact free public college would have on private schools such as hers, and she encouraged lawmakers to consider alternatives. She said the federal government could instead double the investment in the Pell grant program, a federal financial aid program aimed at families making less than $60,000 a year. Pouring more money into that effort could knock out a substantial amount of the cost of college, she said.
“We could increase Pell 10 times and be under Clinton’s estimated costs,” she said. “There are ways that we can approach this that are more rational, less disruptive for small privates that are tuition driven and public institutions that rely on out-of-state tuition for their budget.”
Pell plays a critical role in the tuition-free proposals in the states, as many of them would cover tuition after the federal grant is applied. While Senate Republicans have backed efforts to expand Pell funding, their colleagues in the House have stymied legislation that would make the grant available throughout the academic year. That not only leaves the prospects for an expansion up in the air but also calls into question whether the existing funding levels will continue in the next administration.