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As Democrats on the presidential campaign trail pitch their college affordability plans to voters, they are largely united in their calls for a big boost in federal spending on higher education.

Following a monthslong effort by liberal groups to push “debt-free college” -- and after President Obama’s call for free community college earlier this year -- leading Democratic presidential hopefuls Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both now have proposals that would expand the role of the federal government in higher education.

At the heart of both plans is a new federal-state matching program that would send billions of dollars to states and colleges with the goal of seeing tuition slashed or eliminated at public colleges and universities.

For all the similarities, however, there are key differences in how Clinton and Sanders are approaching college affordability and which types of students their plans would benefit.

Clinton’s plan, unveiled this month, calls for students to be able to attend a four-year public college or university without needing to take out loans to cover their tuition, so long as they work at least 10 hours a week. Families would be required to pay out of pocket an “affordable and reasonable” amount of tuition based on their financial situation.

For some low-income families, that would presumably mean that tuition is essentially zero -- or close to zero -- and the plan then envisions those students using the Pell Grant to cover expenses beyond tuition, like books, supplies and living costs.

But for families making more money, Clinton’s plan appears to require students to pay an “affordable” amount based on their financial need. It’s not clear, though, how Clinton would set those thresholds. Her campaign cited the current federal formula that calculates need based on students’ responses to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid -- and said that the plan would make that formula more generous.

The Clinton Plan: Debt-Free Tuition at Public College The Sanders Plan: Tuition-Free Public College
States would receive federal money to eliminate the need of some students to borrow to pay for tuition. Students would have to work 10 hours a week to participate. And families who could afford to chip in -- by some yet-to-be-determined metric -- would be required to pay. States would receive money from the federal government to eliminate tuition at public colleges and universities. All students would be eligible, regardless of income.

Regardless of how the plan defines “affordable” payments, some wealthy families would likely end up picking up the full tab of their tuition at public colleges.

That stands in contrast to the Sanders plan, announced in May, which aims to create tuition-free public education. Under Sanders’s proposal, the federal government would send money to states that agree to eliminate tuition and required fees at public colleges and universities for all students, regardless of income.

For low-income students who qualify for the maximum Pell Grant, Sanders’s plan would require a public college to cover the student’s full need, as defined by the current federal formula, up to the cost of attendance (but minus the value of the Pell Grant).

The Vermont Senator's legislation doesn’t specify how colleges would have to charge other students from middle-income families who don’t qualify for the maximum Pell Grant -- other than saying states have to put the new federal money toward eliminating tuition and fees (while also maintaining their own spending on higher education).

But wealthier families who could otherwise afford college would benefit from any across-the-board reductions or elimination of tuition at public colleges and universities.

“It’s a trade-off between simplicity and price,” said Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of education leadership, management and policy at Seton Hall University. “Sanders’s program is very simple to understand -- tuition covered no matter what -- but he’s subsidizing some people who Clinton would expect to pay.”

That’s not necessarily a bad thing, Kelchen added. “It may subsidize higher-income students but it would also potentially increase economic diversity by getting higher-income students to go to public colleges instead of private colleges,” he said.

Other financial aid experts said that the Sanders plan’s simplicity of calling for free tuition at public colleges across the board had some value.

“As a message to students, simplicity has an impact on families,” said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher at Edvisors. “Free is easy to explain. One of the flaws of the Clinton plan is that it is very detailed and complicated, and the biggest part about college affordability is hard to explain -- what exactly does ‘debt-free tuition’ mean?”

Still, Kantrowitz said that neither Clinton's nor Sanders's plan goes far enough to help defray the full cost of college for students. And in both cases, he noted, the plans would be funded by tax hikes that are a political nonstarter with Republicans. He has an alternative debt-free college plan that would involve reshuffling the federal government’s existing aid programs and sending money directly to colleges that agree to make their institution debt-free.

Beth Akers, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, has been critical of the “debt-free” college rhetoric because, she said, she’s concerned it would move away from the nation’s market-based system of higher education.

Clinton’s plan, Akers said, does a better job of making sure some “students still have skin in the game, that they are caring about the quality of the service.”

Sandy Baum, a senior fellow at the Urban Institute, who helped advise the Clinton campaign on its higher education plan, said that while in a perfect world public colleges might not charge tuition at all, Clinton's plan is "carefully trying to focus" on directing federal resources to students who need them most.

"The Clinton plan says that the people who go to college and can afford it are going to pay something. It's not 'tuition-free' for people who can afford to pay tuition," she said. "I think that's a more realistic approach."

Besides Clinton and Sanders, other Democratic candidates have been pushing their own higher education plans.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley has outlined a proposal that he refers to as “debt-free college.” It would follow a similar federal-state matching program model as the other plans, though his campaign documents don’t make clear exactly how much different types of students would pay.

If Vice President Joe Biden were to make official the presidential bid that he’s reportedly mulling, he would campaign while part of an administration that has been markedly less bullish on the “debt-free” college concept. While Obama called for free community college earlier this year -- and Biden joined him to make the announcement in Knoxville, Tenn. -- the leadership of his Education Department has been far more tepid on proposals to make a four-year degree free.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan said last month that a “debt-free” option at public colleges should be just one part of improving higher education and said that policy makers should expand their focus from student debt to accountability for outcomes.

Under Secretary of Education Ted Mitchell said earlier this summer that the administration believes that college "affordability doesn’t necessarily end up at zero."

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