Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, speaking at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Sept. 10. (Morry Gash/AP)

Last month, presidential hopeful Hillary Rodham Clinton rolled out a $350 billion plan designed to make college more affordable and ease student debt. She proposed providing money to states that ensure low tuition at public universities, with those that enroll more low-income students getting more incentive money.

[Clinton proposes $350 billion plan to make college more affordable.]

More than 40 million Americans have student loans, amounting to a total of $1.3 trillion in debt nationwide. 

Steven C. Bahls, president of Augustana College in Illinois, has considered her proposal — and asks, “Why limit opportunity?”

Steven C. Bahls (Augustana Photo Bureau) Steven C. Bahls (Augustana Photo Bureau)

By Steven C. Bahls

Hillary Clinton’s New College Compact proposing to direct $350 billion to college affordability over 10 years is welcome news for America’s college students and their families. More money to higher education, invested wisely, will provide a needed first step on the ladder of economic opportunity and personal growth for many more Americans.

But it’s hard to miss that Clinton’s plan excludes private colleges and universities from most of its provisions.

Clinton, herself, is a graduate of two private institutions – Wellesley College and Yale Law School.

Clinton’s plan, while well intentioned, sends the wrong message to America’s lower income families and first-generation college students. Channeling most of these students into public institutions effectively deprives them of the opportunity to explore the full range of possibilities within higher education.

This limitation misses the mark and the potential impact for students. It perpetuates the myth that private institutions only enroll wealthy students.

Yet according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the income demographics of the nation’s private nonprofit colleges closely mirror the demographics of public institutions. And the average debt for students completing a bachelor’s degree at a private institution was $29,900 versus $25,000 at public institutions.

This relatively small difference in graduates’ indebtedness indicates offering similar subsidies to private schools would have similar effects and be similarly possible with “no loan” tuition plans.

I participated in President Obama’s higher education summit last year. At the summit, first lady Michelle Obama made a profound impact by passionately describing her years at Princeton as a first-generation student. She talked about the support she received at Princeton and how it paved the way for her future success.

She challenged all college and university presidents attending the summit, public and private, to make their institutions more accessible to lower-income and first-generation students, just as Princeton did for her. These leaders in higher education responded by improving outreach and support for first-generation students while enhancing financial aid.

Inspired by the first lady’s challenge, Augustana College worked with its donors to fund four-year “Close the Gap” scholarships for 10 percent of the entering class. These scholarships are meeting the financial need of high-performing, low-income students, who otherwise might not have enjoyed the benefits of private higher education.

So why would we adopt a college financial plan that would limit access and opportunities like those that so richly benefited Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama for today’s lower-income and first-generation students?

Clinton should instead do the same as the first lady: Call on public and private education to work together, with the benefit of her plan, to open doors to all types of higher education.

Entering an election year, proposals like Clinton’s should engage the electorate in the important question of how we build our nation’s future. But all of the candidates would do well to avoid playing politics, especially with younger voters and their families.

Clinton is to be applauded for using her candidacy to lift up college access early in the campaign. But all candidates, Democratic and Republican, need to depoliticize higher education and commit to finding common ground that prioritizes college access and affordability.

Education is the shortest path between opportunity and economic growth for individuals, families, communities and nations. But the challenges our families and country face can only be met by all of us, including public and private institutions, working together to provide the greatest opportunities to our students.