Hillary Rodham Clinton on Monday unveiled a $350 billion plan to make college affordable and relieve the burden of student debt for millions of Americans, drawing on popular tenets of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Clinton described the plan at a town hall-style event with voters in New Hampshire, the state which by some measures has the nation’s highest level of student debt at $33,000 per student.
“College is supposed to help people achieve their dreams, but more and more paying for college actually pushes those dreams further and further out of reach,” Clinton said in front of a crowd of about 600 at a public high school in Exeter, NH. "That is a betrayal of everything college is supposed to represent.”
The presidential hopeful was introduced by Dan Torrey, a University of New Hampshire student who told Clinton he is struggling to pay for college and working three jobs this summer to help defray costs.
“We can barely afford it now,” Torrey told Clinton.
Tackling the high cost of college has emerged as a central issue in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Leaders on the left have for months pressed Clinton to advocate "debt free" college, as Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, her challengers, have done. Although the former secretary of state has stopped short of that endorsement, she has a comprehensive agenda that encompasses just about everything on the party's wish list.
At the heart of the plan, dubbed the New College Compact, is an incentive program that would provide money to states that guarantee "no-loan" tuition at four-year public universities and community colleges. States that enroll a high number of low- and middle-income students would receive more money, as would those that work with schools to reduce living expenses. Because Pell grants, a form of federal aid for students from families making less than $60,000, are not included in the no-debt calculation, Clinton anticipates lower income students could use that money to cover books, as well as room and board.
"This proposal will definitely make college more affordable and accessible for students across the country. However, it does not go far enough," said Art Motta, a senior at the University of Santa Cruz, who serves on the board of the United States Student Association. "We are looking for politicians and decision-makers to fully commit to a vision of free, public higher education for all. We have not heard that commitment from Clinton’s proposal.”
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. But instead of taxing Wall Street transactions as Sanders has proposed, Clinton would close tax loopholes to pay for her plan.
A senior Clinton campaign official said the candidate would reinstitute Ronald Reagan-era cuts on itemized tax deductions for high-income families. The $350 billion would cover all facets of the far-reaching proposal over 10 years. More than half of the total would be used to increase state investment in higher education, a third would cover the cost of lowering the interest rates on student loans and the rest would support the other initiatives.
The multi-billion price tag and proposed tax cuts have rankled Republicans.
GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush called the proposal "irresponsible," saying it "would raise taxes, increase government debt, and double-down on the failed Obama economic policies. We don’t need more top-down Washington solutions that will raise the cost of college even further and shift the burden to hardworking taxpayers."
While lawmakers and policy experts on the left have coalesced around debt-free degrees as a solution to ease the burden of student debt, some worry that such a narrow focus ignores other vital issues such as completion and the quality of higher education.
"The cost piece is obviously a big deal, but it’s more complicated than that," said Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in an interview. "Yes, we have to reduce cost...but the other part is the quality piece. Completion rates are so low, and if all we’re doing is making something that doesn’t work for half of the people cheaper to me that’s pretty insufficient."
Duncan, who hadn't delved deeply into Clinton's plan, was heartened to learn that she included several ideas that could improve the nation's 60 percent college graduation rate.
To that end, Clinton would offer grants to schools that invest in child care, emergency financial aid and other interventions to boost completion. Students entering college are older and have more family responsibilities than those a generation ago, yet many institutions have been slow to respond to their needs. Investing in on-campus support systems could help, as could Clinton's proposal to allow federal student aid to be used for online career training programs offering badges or certificates, rather than degrees.
Among the many policy proposals included in the compact are ideas that liberal and conservative lawmakers have agreed on, including simplifying the application for financial aid and consolidating student loan repayment plans. Clinton is also backing a controversial bipartisan proposal to have colleges pay a portion of the debt when students default on school loans, and planning to use the proceeds to pay for some of her initiatives.
It seems Clinton is courting the support of progressives in the party by adopting a proposal by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to refinance student loans and a plan by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) to close a loophole that encourages for-profit colleges to aggressively recruit members of the military. Despite her lead in polls, Clinton is facing a formidable challenge from Sanders, who is drawing crowds of 10,000 or more and energizing the progressive base.
But the scope and depth of Clinton's college plan could reinvigorate her campaign among progressives.
"This plan would go further to help the 40 million Americans with student debt than any other plan right now, and other candidates and Congress need to pay attention," said Chris Hicks, an organizer for Jobs With Justice's Debt-Free Future campaign. "With more than 8 million student loan borrowers in default and even more in delinquency and unable to pay, we need these fixes immediately."
There are a lot of similarities between the proposals the Democratic candidates have issued to lower the cost of college. Clinton and O'Malley share support for campus-based child care, stricter oversight of for-profit colleges and unconventional career training programs. Sanders and Clinton, meanwhile, both want Congress to lower interest rates on federal loans, but Sanders would bring the rates down across the board, not just for undergraduates as Clinton is proposing. All three candidates say they would let students and parents refinance federal loans at a lower interest rate to save money.
"Together with O'Malley's debt-free college plan and Sanders's big ideas on tuition, Clinton's plan solidifies that the center of gravity around higher education has shifted from tinkering with interest rates to the big idea of making college debt free," said Adam Green, co-founder of Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group allied with Warren.
The Clinton campaign consulted with numerous education experts and advocacy groups in designing the compact, including Sandy Baum of the Urban Institute, former Education Department official Bob Shireman and Rohit Chopra, a former point man on student loans at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
"There is a huge focus on tuition for the next generation, but we can't address affordability without helping the millions of Americans with loans right now," Chopra said.
There are more than 40 million Americans with a collective $1.3 trillion in student loans. Although many have no trouble repaying their loans, millions are at least nine months behind or struggling to make payments and cover living expenses.
The latest data from the New York Federal Reserve shows that 65 percent of student loans are held by Americans younger than 39, while people age 40 to 59 hold another 30 percent. The issue weighs heaviest on the minds of millennials, who have endured soaring college costs that forced many to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
“We want people to be able to fulfill their responsibilities, but we don’t want it to be so hard that the debt they carry interferes with them being able to start a small business, or buy a home, or even to get married,” Clinton said.
Gearan reported from Exeter, N.H.
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