Nichols College (Photo by Lorraine U. Martinelle)

Susan West Engelkemeyer, the president of Nichols College in Massachusetts, challenges the campaign rhetoric and offers some other options to “free college.”

— Susan Svrluga


Susan West Engelkemeyer (Photo by Dan Vaillancourt) Susan West Engelkemeyer (Photo by Dan Vaillancourt)

As Sen. Bernie Sanders’s chants of “free college for all” have faded, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has taken up the modified mantra “free public college for some.” She has proposed free in-state tuition for students from families earning less than $85,000 a year. That figure rises to $125,000 by 2021.

It’s a populist message that’s resonating — in a recent survey, 62 percent of Americans supported making public college free — and it’s likely to remain part of the national conversation.

But there’s more to that conversation than $1.3 trillion in student debt and a massive proposal ($350 billion over 10 years) to slow its runaway growth.

The equation needs to factor in a closer look at student indebtedness and more realistic means of limiting it.

Recent articles have highlighted such stories such as one in Consumer Reports about a 2011 graduate earning $62,000 a year as a nurse and struggling to make her $1,200 monthly payment on a $152,000 loan balance.  She is not alone, but her dire situation is exceptional.

A workable rule of thumb holds that a graduate’s total debt should not exceed a starting salary, keeping loan payments to about 1 percent of annual income. The average overall debt per student borrower stands at $26,900, less than the price of a new car.

While that car may reach the junkyard in 10 years, the value of a college education increases. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, median earnings of 35- to 44-year-old college graduates in 2014 were $56,094, compared with $31,270 for those who had completed only high school. The difference in lifetime earnings comes to almost $1 million.

Free public tuition would upend the landscape of public and private institutions alike.

The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce projects that under the Clinton plan, public college enrollment could climb 22 percent, while private institutions could lose 15 percent of their student bodies.

What would this influx do to a moderately-sized state university of 10,000? For 2,200 additional students, 55,000 square feet of new classroom space would cost about $14 million to build. If 50 percent of these students required housing, 1,100 new beds would equal $88 million in new dormitories.

Who would pay for the $100 million in infrastructure costs?

Imagine the price tag for a school like Arizona State University, with more than 62,000 undergraduates.

While a free tuition program would draw students who could not have afforded college, the majority of additional public college students might otherwise attend smaller private colleges like ours. (Elite private institutions would still have waiting lists and enough financial aid to go around.)

A number of private colleges would have to close their doors — even though they have higher retention and graduation rates than their public peers, and perhaps surprisingly, a large proportion of low-income students.

Colleges have gotten the message about containing costs.

The discount rate for full-time, first-year students at private institutions has grown to 49 percent in the 2015-16 academic year — almost half the “sticker price”— as schools raise financial aid.

For two of the past three years, Nichols College, like many of our peers, also has frozen tuition.

Federal Pell Grants provide an average of almost $6,000 annually to students from low- and middle-income families. Increasing that amount would make public colleges more affordable and private colleges more within reach, while allowing federal financial aid to follow students to the colleges of their choice.

Thirty-five states offer tax deductions for college savings; the remaining 15 could follow suit.

Lastly, we should not underestimate the possibilities of saving for college, even in an era when families feel tapped out.

While low-income families face the biggest financial challenge, one-third saved in 2014, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

Only 51 percent of middle-income households and 73 percent of those earning more than $100,000 per year were doing the same.

There’s room for those percentages to increase, considering the lifetime return on investment a college education provides.

Families also need to discuss which schools fit best academically, socially, and financially. To that end, all colleges feature net-price calculators on their websites. Students can enter their GPA, SAT scores and financial information to get an estimate of out-of-pocket costs.

A workable solution to the student debt crisis can include all the major stakeholders — colleges, federal and state government, students, and their families.  It’s a shared responsibility and an educational and economic reality.

Free college is not free — someone’s paying the price.

Let’s get real: Clinton’s plan — and its estimated $350 billion price tag for taxpayers — is anything but free. I don’t subscribe to the government making college debt-free for all, because someone is still paying the cost, including lower-wage-earning taxpayers who opted to not attend college. The educational policymakers in the next presidential administration need to recognize a more complex reality than simply providing free tuition for willing students.

Nichols College (Photo by Lorraine U. Martinelle