Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign released her framework for higher education reform at midnight on Monday morning (see details here and here). The plan, officially listed at a cost of $350 billion over ten years, would move closer to the idea of debt-free public college, require states to increase their spending on public higher education, and potentially embrace some accountability reforms with bipartisan appeal. Below are some of my first-take comments on Sen. Clinton’s proposal, as I look forward to seeing complete details. (I didn’t get an embargoed copy in advance.)
- This proposal feels like a direct reaction to pressure that Sen. Clinton was facing from the political Left. Both of her main rivals, independent Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, have supported versions of debt-free public college plans. This has zero chance of passing Congress as is, particularly as the House of Representatives is likely to stay in Republican hands through 2020 and the proposal would be paid for by additional taxes on wealthy Americans.
- I’m highly skeptical of the $350 billion price tag, or at least when it’s phrased as just being $35 billion per year (roughly equal to federal Pell Grant spending). New federal programs take several years to phase in, meaning that most of the expenses are in later years. (President Obama’s free community college proposal is similar.) Once this plan is fully in place, I’d expect the price tag to be closer to $70 billion per year. All politicians like to massage the ten-year budget window used for cost estimates, and Sen. Clinton is no different.
- Unlike some other “free college” proposals, Sen. Clinton’s proposal brings at least some private nonprofit colleges to the table by potentially making some of their students eligible for additional aid. This is a politically smart move, as the private nonprofit lobby is strong and many colleges in this sector do good work for students. But as noted in Inside Higher Ed this morning, the leadership of the private college lobby is concerned about any proposals that direct relatively less money to private colleges—as it could affect some institutions’ ability to survive.
- This plan includes a federal/state partnership, which is typical for Democratic higher education proposals (and a good way to keep the price tag down somewhat). However, as suggested by Medicaid, many Republican governors may not take up the extra funds in exchange for having to assume additional responsibilities. For that reason, Sen. Clinton’s proposal to allow public colleges in those states to bypass the state governments to work directly with the federal government is politically brilliant. But states probably won’t be happy.
- Much of the price tag will go to reduce interest rates on student loans, both for current students and to allow former students to refinance their loans. This is a big deal for the Elizabeth Warren faction of the Democratic Party—the folks who really make their voices heard in primary elections. But this money will do little to improve access and completion rates, in part because much of the money goes to students after they have left college and because income-based repayment plans make interest rates less relevant. Additionally, students who tried to avoid debt as much as possible (many from lower-income families) won’t benefit as much and may be upset by the subsidies going to higher-income borrowers. I wrote about this in my previous post.
- There are bipartisan pieces in this plan, including accreditation reform, better consumer information, and risk-sharing for student loans. If Sen. Clinton becomes the nominee, look for her to pivot to the center and highlight some of these proposals.
- The Clinton staff are claiming this proposal will help bring down the cost of providing a college education, in addition to the price that students pay. I just can’t help but be skeptical when suggested cost-saving areas include administration and technology. Colleges have been facing pressure to tighten their belts for years from states (and many have actually done so), so I don’t think the federal government will be any more successful. But it makes for a good soundbite.
The three main Democratic candidates have now laid out their higher education agendas. Hopefully, the Republican field (which, with the exception of Sen. Marco Rubio, have been fairly quiet on the issue) will follow suit.