With College’s Price Tag on the Rise, Democratic Candidates Aim for ‘Debt-Free’ Higher Education

States across the country continue to reduce their public investment in education. With that in mind, Democratic presidential candidates are tackling the question of how to make college affordable (again) for American students.

States across the country continue to reduce their public investment in education. With that in mind, Democratic presidential candidates are tackling the question of how to make college affordable (again) for American students. Shutterstock

The price of higher education is on the rise: The cost of attending a public four-year college rose by 39 percent between 2003 and 2013, and states across the country continue to reduce their public investment in education. With that in mind, Democratic presidential candidates are tackling the question of how to make college affordable (again) for American students. The big buzzwords: “debt-free” and “tuition-free.”

Earlier this week, Hillary Clinton released what her campaign is calling a “New College Compact,” while Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders proposed his own version of a completely retooled public higher education mechanism in May. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley detailed his own “debt-free” plan in July.

While Clinton’s plan is currently garnering the most buzz, the three most visible Democratic candidates’ ideas are roughly similar: They would all significantly step up the role of the federal government in funneling money to states to assist students with tuition costs at public schools. In some students’ cases, this money could potentially cover tuition entirely—as long as university and college systems meet certain accountability standards.

This, experts say, reflects the downturn in public funding institutions have received over the last few decades, as states funnel taxpayer dollars away from higher education.

“There’s a recognition that one of the reasons why prices for students have gone up so dramatically over the past ten, 20, 30 years is that states have been disinvesting from higher education systems,” said Rachel Fishman, a policy analyst at New America, a nonprofit think tank that, according to its mission statement, specializes in “impartial analysis.” She said that because of tight recession budgets and mandated spending on items like health care, states have significantly dropped their spending on post-secondary education.

Fishman called the general tenor of the plans a kind of “new federalism for higher education,” with candidates trying to figure out “how to get states to reinvest back into their systems of higher ed.”

Clinton’s proposal, for example, focuses on that reinvestment throughout its major tenets. For states that “halt disinvestment in higher education” and “ramp up that investment over time,” according to Clinton’s proposal, the federal government would issue grants to cover tuition costs based on the enrollment numbers of low- and middle-income students.

It would also continue President Obama’s plan for tuition-free community college; cut student loan interest rates; dedicate money specifically for “modest-endowment private colleges,” especially those which “serve a high percentage of Pell Grant recipients” and which historically serve students of color; implement income-based loan repayment plans across the board; expand Americorps and services provided under the GI Bill; and extend the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

Clinton’s plan has an estimated cost of $350 billion over the next decade—parents and families are expected to pick up an income-proportional cost of tuition—while Sanders’ plan has an estimated cost of $750 billion for the same time period and would effectively offer two free years of college to everyone, not just community college students.

While all three candidates’ proposals so far involve refinancing existing student loans, a popular idea that’s garnered bipartisan support, Fishman cautioned that refinancing doesn’t ultimately address the wider problem, which is the overall cost of schooling.

Refinancing, she said, “would certainly benefit some students, but it doesn’t buy a lot” because “the overall savings for the student is not really high.” Lower interest rates would be an advantage mainly, she said, to “those who borrowed the most, and who are most likely to graduate.”

“The question is, ‘What is your policy priority?'” she said. “If it’s degree attainment, we need to concentrate on low-income students and student loan interest rates are not the way to do it. But that’s what the middle class and upper middle class are really into.” Instead, says Fishman, it’s that state-federal partnership that’s key to giving states an incentive to keep tuition low so that low- and middle-income students can succeed.

Ditto for the tax credit, said Fishman—it’s another advantage that largely benefits middle- and upper-income student loan borrowers.

But the cost of tuition isn’t the only concern for America’s growing population of college students.

Gov. O’Malley’s plan also focuses specifically on implementing services like child care that could assist many students in maintaining enrollment and graduating.

That’s important, said Fishman, because the typical college student doesn’t look so much like the traditionally imagined 18-year-old who’s “going to the lovely campus with grass and sitting on the lawn and reading and then going back to the dorms.”

Forty percent of today’s college students are attending community college, she said, “which kind of blows people’s minds.”

“They’re commuting, and around 30 percent of community college students have children,” she said, which means they need more support outside of the classroom. Services like child care and assistance finding benefits like SNAP are essential. Otherwise, said Fishman, “for students, especially low-income students who have lives outside the classroom who are taking care of others and are the breadwinner for the family, it’s just not going to work for them.”

So far, no Republican candidate has proposed anything like the detailed plans from the Democratic side, though that may change once what Fishman called the “noisy field” of the GOP quiets some. But Fishman doesn’t expect conservatives to embrace the debt-free angle.

“I don’t see any of them saying, ‘Let’s do debt-free college,'” said Fishman. “They’re going to have a counterpoint.”

Nevertheless, Fishman said she was encouraged that conversations about solutions to state disinvestment are happening at all.

“If you’d told me a year ago we’d be having this discussion about federal-state partnerships,” she said, “I’d be surprised that so many candidates have come out to focus on this.”

But in any discussion about the rising cost of college and attendant student loans, she said, real solutions will have to address the disinvestment issue, as all three Democratic proposals do.

“The fear students are feeling over loans has everything to do with price they’re facing,” said Fishman. “Until you address the price question, the solutions you come up with for student loan problem are ad hoc.”