Debt-Free and (Mostly) Detail-Free

As fight against college debt has its moment, what do college association leaders think about it?

June 19, 2015
 
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As the idea of debt-free college swirls around the Democratic presidential campaign and some liberal policy circles, the groups that represent colleges and universities are sizing up what it might mean for them.

For the most part, they’re just waiting to see details. So far, debt-free college remains a largely high-minded goal, and the plans from the politicians embracing it have been vague.

What is clear, though, is that a shift to debt-free college would likely represent a fundamental change from the current financing system of American higher education.

“It’s potentially a really far-reaching, dramatic reshuffling of higher education,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president for government relations and public affairs at the American Council on Education.

Even if debt-free college continues to catch on, it’ll likely be years before legislative details are even contemplated, much less written into a bill that becomes law. In the meantime, though, the proposal itself appears to be driving a conversation about higher education on the Democratic campaign trail, foreshadowing the student debt issues that may play a prominent role in the election that is 17 months away.

“It’s too soon to tell” how colleges will respond to the debt-free college proposals, Hartle said. “The several debt-free proposals out there reflect both widespread concern about the cost of college and the Democrats’ desire to ensure that young voters go to the polls in 2016.”

Hartle said that his association has had “a couple of passing conversations” with presidential campaigns about debt-free college. They were mostly “fact-finding” for the campaigns rather than an explanation of details, he said.

The calls for debt-free college nearly all recognize the large cutbacks many states have made to higher education spending in recent years -- and draw attention to the need to boost that funding again.

“Debt-free higher education is aspirational,” said Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities. “But it’s a goal that brings out important conversations,” for example, spotlighting state disinvestment and how to deal with it, he said. “We fear the long-term trend and we would like to have that conversation.”

“As people talk about debt-free education,” McPherson said, “I want to take advantage of the opportunity to talk about how we can take concrete steps to deal with the origination of debt.”

He said he wanted to draw attention to “loans students shouldn’t take out in the first place” because of overborrowing -- which colleges need greater authority to curb -- or because the student is using the money to attend a poorly performing institution.

Too much federal aid, he said, is going to colleges that don’t serve students well, and the eligibility standards for colleges to receive student loans and grants need to be strengthened.

Although public colleges and universities may welcome the attention to the state funding issues they’ve faced in recent years, a debt-free college plan driven by new federal spending is also riddled with challenges for those institutions.

The federal government has long financed higher education through aid to students who choose their institution. If, as some of the debt-free college proposals call for, the federal government upped its direct subsidies of states and institutions, that would likely mean greater federal control over higher education -- a concern some voiced even with the more modest community college plan earlier this year.

The tuition-free college plan by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, for instance, would require participating states to make sure that 75 percent of classes at public institutions are taught by tenured or tenure-track faculty, an effort aimed at reducing their reliance on adjunct professors. While such a shift would likely cost colleges more money, many faculty groups would cheer such a requirement, and some bemoaned the lack of such a provision in President Obama's plan for free community college.

If public institutions were forced to drastically reduce tuition to get access to federal money, that could lead to cuts that hurt educational quality, said Iowa State University President Steven Leath.

“Quality is an issue,” he said. "We need to have an adult conversation about how to pay for it.”

One of the things that has become clear is that the debt-free plans focus on public higher education. That marks a significant shift in federal policy on college access, which has traditionally focused on aid that can be spent at public or private, for-profit or nonprofit institutions.

Such a shift would be of concern to private colleges, said Sarah Flanagan, vice president for government relations and policy at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities.

In addition to concerns over whether the benefits in a debt-free college plan would wisely target limited dollars to students who actually need them, Flanagan said, private colleges would worry that a new federal program would undermine political support for existing student aid programs like the Pell Grant.

“In the zero-sum budget game, the thought that you could create a massive spending program for public colleges while preserving student-based aid programs for students going to all institutions is unrealistic,” she said.

Debt-free college is, in some ways, an expansion of the free community college plan President Obama rolled out in January.

In the face of formidable congressional opposition to the cost of their proposal, administration officials have said they’re focusing on using free community college as a way to drive a conversation about making two years of postsecondary education as universal as high school. They’ve looked, for instance, to cities and states to jump on free community college even if it is stalled at the federal level.

Debt-free college is likely to be far more expensive than the community college plan, regardless of how it’s structured. The administration has indicated that it’s looking at the idea but has balked at embracing the promise of a college education completely free of debt.

“We’re talking about it and thinking about it,” Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell said last week at an education forum hosted by National Journal. But, he added, “We think that affordability doesn’t necessarily end up at zero.”

David Bergeron, vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, said that the wide-ranging debt-free-college conversation playing out has been constructive.

“We’re all trying to triangulate around: how do you finance a system in such a way that everybody has an option to a public alternative that is of high quality and free,” he said, adding that, in his view, that doesn’t necessarily mean completely eliminating loan borrowing for all public university students.

“It’s both a political and policy conversation,” he said.

And it’s a conversation that, for now at least, is confined to one side of the political spectrum.

Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, speaking at the same event, was far more skeptical of debt-free college.

“It’s that kind of talk that makes students think they can’t afford college,” he said. “Two years of college for a low-income student is already free, or nearly free.”

“Every political season,” he added, “politicians run around saying ‘we’re going to solve your student loan problem’ hoping to get votes.”

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