The Big, Bold Idea at the Heart of Hillary Clinton’s Plan to Make College Cheaper

Who here wants to offer states grants to refund their higher education systems while requiring them to maintain their own appropriations?

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

There is a long and complicated list of reasons why Washington has failed to make higher education more affordable over the years. But in some ways, the issue boils down to a single, obvious problem. The federal government can give students money to pay for school, but it can’t control what colleges charge. And no matter how much more aid it has handed out to families, the price of tuition has risen faster.

Why has tuition rocketed up? While I’m sure you’d love a 10-day explanation, here’s the short version, as it applies to public colleges. First, schools are spending more than they used to running themselves. (For that, we can thank everything from luxurious lazy rivers on campus to the growing size of college administrations). Second, states are spending less than they used to subsidizing students. (For that, we can partly thank budget cuts that followed the recession, though disinvestment in higher education has been a long-running problem).

Over the past several months, Democrats seem to have coalesced around one big idea that could fix this fundamental dysfunction. It’s a three-part bargain that goes roughly like this:

Part 1: The federal government should give money directly to states so they can refund their colleges and universities.

Part 2: The states need to quit their budget-slashing ways, and likely increase their funding for higher ed, much the same way that they cover a minimum amount of Medicaid spending.

Part 3: In order to qualify for the new wad of federal cash, colleges will need to keep their prices down.

This, more or less, was the basic outline of President Obama’s plan for free community college, which he unveiled right before the State of the Union. It’s also the core of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ plan to eliminate tuition at all public colleges. And now, it’s the centerpiece of Hillary Clinton’s big new proposal to to bring down the cost of higher education, which she unveiled Monday.

While perhaps not quite as ambitious as Sanders’ concept, Clinton’s version is part of a sweeping, 10-year, $350 billion agenda designed to guarantee that students can attend a four-year public school without taking out loans for their tuition, or graduate from a two-year community college without paying tuition at all. That’s not the same as saying students would graduate debt-free, since many undergrads borrow heavily to cover living expenses. Meanwhile, families of bachelor’s degree seekers would still be expected to pay a reasonable amount toward their children’s education while students would need to work 10 hours a week to make the math work. But it would still be a large step forward from where we are today. As of now, the Department of Education says that public colleges and universities currently take in around $65 billion worth of tuition and fees each year. Clinton would spend about $175 billion over a decade on grants to states—not nearly enough to eliminate the burden on students, but, combined with the other pieces of her program, enough to alleviate it.

Clinton’s plan is studded with other proposals that, on their own, are smart, ambitious, and in some cases controversial. To discourage schools from loading students with too much debt, for instance, she would fine institutions whose graduates can’t pay back their loans, a currently bipartisan idea known as “skin-in-the-game” that would make much of the higher-ed world howl in protest. She would further crack down on the for-profit education industry, which has many friends in Congress. She would massively simplify the Department of Education’s income-based repayment programs, which cap what student debtors have to pay each month as a percentage of their paycheck and forgive the balance after a period of time, and make the new version open to all borrowers. And taking a page from Elizabeth Warren, Clinton would also look to lower student loan interest rates and let borrowers with older debt refinance.

And the list goes on. These sorts of ideas could do a lot of good outside of Clinton’s comprehensive plan (some more than others). But again, what makes Clinton’s idea worth getting excited about isn’t the laundry list of decent to great policy proposals it offers. Rather, it’s the fact that the leading Democratic presidential candidate has recognized the need to revamp the broken relationship between the federal government, states, and colleges if we want to have any hope of making public higher education sustainably affordable. Of course, as long as Republicans hold onto a chamber of Congress, this particular vision of how to fix our student debt problem, with its large new batch of government spending, won’t make it through Capitol Hill. But at least it’s a vision.