(Kristin Streff/The Journal-Star via AP)

“What matters to me as a voter is that my mom is not only the only candidate on either side of the aisle who tells you exactly how she is going to pay for everything, but she doesn’t expect to rely on things that are unlikely, like that [Sanders’s plan]. So she says, going forward, she believes that anyone should be able to graduate from school debt-free, public universities or private universities, debt-free. And for public universities that students who come from working-class, middle-class families, should be able to go tuition-free. But families who come from wealthier backgrounds should pay into the system.”

— Chelsea Clinton, campaign event in Milwaukee, March 24, 2016

Chelsea Clinton was asked by a University of Wisconsin-Madison student about her mother’s plan to make college affordable — one of the major domestic issues in the Democratic presidential race. But the former first daughter oversimplified two components in her answer and failed to capture the nuances. We fact-checked how much of Hillary Clinton’s college affordability plan offers “debt-free” and “tuition-free” colleges.

The Facts

The New College Compact is Hillary Clinton’s $350 billion, 10-year plan that comprises several ways to relieve debt and to charge low to no tuition for those who need it the most. Her plan stops short of promising debt-free colleges, and offers targeted opportunities for low to no tuition for low-income families.

In contrast, Bernie Sanders’s plan goes further by offering tuition-free college at four-year public schools completely and allowing students to graduate without debt.

Perhaps the biggest difference between the two is how they would pay for such measures. Clinton has proposed closing tax loopholes, and Sanders wants to tax Wall Street transactions.

The New College Compact proposes an incentive program for states. States would be rewarded with federal money by guaranteeing “no-loan” tuition at four-year public colleges and universities and limited costs for other expenses. States would get more money if they enroll more low- and middle-income students, and work with schools to reduce living expenses.

Under the plan, students who receive Pell grants (not a loan, but federal aid for low-income families) would be able to use that money to cover non-tuition costs, such as room and board.

But this “no-loan” tuition structure only applies to public schools. So Chelsea Clinton inaccurately suggests that her mother’s plan would offer debt-free college for students attending private schools.

There are aspects in Clinton’s plan that could help students outside of the public school or loan system. Clinton proposes “significantly” cutting the interest rate on student loans for those borrowing to attend private colleges or to pay for living expenses. Clinton and Sanders both want Congress to allow students and parents to refinance federal student loans at lower interest rates. Clinton’s proposal also allows income-based modification for some private borrowers.

Chelsea Clinton goes too far saying low- and middle-class families would go tuition-free. (In fact, that’s Sanders’s proposal.) She correctly says her mother believes wealthier families should pay into the system — another difference between the two candidates’ plans.

Chelsea Clinton was referring to a provision that targets low- and and lower-middle-income families, according to the Clinton campaign. This component allows families to contribute to tuition based on their income. Students from some low- and lower-middle-income families would be able to attend a four-year public college without paying tuition. But the student would have to work 10 hours per week.

“Although Clinton doesn’t mention the word ‘free’ in her proposal, the basic foundation is the same as legislation Sanders introduced in May that would eliminate tuition at four-year public colleges through federal investment,” our Washington Post colleagues reported.

Hillary Clinton’s recent description of her own plan most accurately describes its components:

“I want to make college affordable for our young people. We’re going to do this with debt-free tuition. I have a somewhat different approach than my esteemed opponent, Senator Sanders, who says he wants it free for everybody,” Clinton said at a rally in Phoenix on March 21, 2016. “I am not going to ask you to pay to send Donald Trump’s youngest child free to college or university. No. Instead, I’m going to focus on who needs the help: middle-class families, working families, striving and struggling poor families. And we’re going to make sure that we get the support we need from states.”

[Update: On March 31, 2016, Bill Clinton also misrepresented an aspect of Hillary Clinton’s college proposal. He said during a speech: “She proposes debt-free education for people that go to public colleges, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, and other private small schools that have modest tuitions, high graduation rates, deal with first and second generation Americans of all kinds, by asking people to pay higher taxes to pay for all the tuition, plus the expenses, of people who are in lower incomes.”

The plan includes a $25 billion fund to “provide support to private nonprofit schools that serve low- and middle-income students and help them build the skills they need, of which private HBCUs are a prime example.” States will receive federal grants for providing “support” for private non-profit colleges “that keep costs low and provide value.” It is not clear what exactly “support” means, and staff for Hillary and Bill Clinton did not provide an explanation. But the former president goes too far saying this is “debt-free” education.]

The Pinocchio Test

Chelsea Clinton suggests her mother’s plan would allow students to graduate from school debt-free from public universities or private universities, and allow students from low- and middle-class families to go to school without paying for tuition.

The plan does offer opportunities for students attending private school to lower their debt – i.e., cutting student loan interest rates. But the no-loan, or debt-free, component only applies to those attending four-year public colleges and universities. The Clinton plan does not offer free tuition — that’s the Sanders plan — but it does allow some low- to lower-middle-income families to qualify for no to low tuition, depending on what they are able to pay without borrowing money. The student also would work 10 hours a week.

It’s not often we see Chelsea Clinton publicly giving detailed policy answers on behalf of her mother on the campaign trail. In this case, she bungled her talking points and oversimplified components of her mother’s plan — ultimately misleading voters. We suggest she brush up on her talking points carefully the next time there is a question-and-answer session with voters. We wavered between Two and Three Pinocchios, but will spare her a Pinocchio since she was speaking extemporaneously during a question-and-answer session.

Two Pinocchios


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