Another Clinton on Student Debt

Bill Clinton hits the stump this week to make the case for Hillary Clinton's college affordability plan, criticizing states' "underfunding" of public higher education.

March 25, 2016

The U.S. Constitution prevents Bill Clinton from being president again. But constitutional scholars believe the former president, who served for two terms, could be eligible to serve as a member of Hillary Clinton’s cabinet, should the former U.S. secretary of state and current favorite for the Democratic presidential nomination ascend to the Oval Office.

In this speculative scenario, education secretary appears to be a possibility for Bill Clinton, at least if his speechifying this week is any indication. (And Inside Higher Ed would be at least partially responsible for starting this rumor.)

A key piece of Hillary Clinton’s plan to drastically reduce student debt is to pressure and incentivize states to “halt disinvestment” in public higher education. So this week Bill Clinton twice took to the dais to ram home that message.

The former president -- and, more recently, honorary chancellor of a for-profit college company -- described his wife’s college affordability proposals during wide-ranging speeches Monday at two college campuses in Washington State: Spokane Falls Community College and Clark College. (Hat tip to the "Millennial Memo" from Young Invincibles.)

However, his message was somewhat obscured in resulting news media coverage of the speeches. That’s because Bill Clinton appeared to take a swipe at the Obama administration during his talk in Spokane, referring to the “awful legacy of the last eight years.”

However, a Bill Clinton aide later clarified that the former president was “referring to the GOP's obstructionism and not President Obama's legacy,” as CNN reported.

Below are excerpts of Clinton’s comments on higher education, as well as a video of the speech at Clark.

Taking on Sanders

During the Spokane speech, Clinton challenged the plan from Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, to make an education at all public colleges and universities tuition-free.

“We’ve got to make college affordable for everyone,” Clinton said, according to The Spokesman-Review. “Tuition’s been going through the roof so it makes it appealing to say, ‘Let’s give tuition to everybody.’ Hillary thinks that’s not the best choice. … We should give free tuition to people from middle incomes and below who really need it.”

Clinton also said his wife’s broad plans for higher education include a “beefing up” of federal Pell Grants and giving “everybody the chance to earn 10 hours a week of work-study money.”

Those proposals would be paid for with new taxes on wealthy people. “She believes that we should raise taxes on the highest-income people because, after all, they’re the only people that have benefited since the crash,” Clinton said. “Not all those people are bad people, but they do have more money.”

Revisiting the '90s

At Clark, which is located in Vancouver, Wash., Clinton began his riff on college affordability by alluding to his administration’s creation of HOPE Scholarships and Lifetime Learning tax credits. (Click here for an archived link to the Clinton White House website, which describes the program amid a list of accomplishments.)

“When I was president, we gave aid to 10 million more people. I met a woman this morning who introduced me to her daughter and said, ‘I got a degree because of that college aid program you passed.’ Unfortunately, a lot of it was taken away after I left. Then President Obama got back in, [and] when the Democrats had Congress, they passed a bigger aid program."

However, some critics have argued that the two Clinton-era tax credits are not as well targeted as Pell and often go to students and families who do not need them -- a similar take to the Clintons' on the Sanders plan.

State Disinvestment

Clinton then transitioned to criticizing state governments for inadequate fiscal support of public colleges.

“But the cost of college kept going up, especially in states where legislators, mostly Republican, had less money after the crash. They wanted to give tax cuts. They had to fund the public schools, so they started underfunding the public colleges,” he said.

“So the colleges started behaving like private colleges, raising tuition. And that meant more and more young people wound up borrowing money -- not from the good federal programs but outside that system. So they got regular bank loans, at high interest rates they couldn’t repay.”

The Clinton Plan

“So here’s what Hillary proposes. We should have a system where every young person can graduate completely debt-free from any public institution of higher education in this country. Debt free,” Clinton said.

“If you’re middle class or below you can get free tuition. And if you’re lower income, you can get more help. She wants a big increase in the Pell Grant so we can pay for supplies, living expenses. … She wants everybody to be able to work 10 hours a week on a work-study grant, which will hold down college costs, not increase it. That won’t kill anybody, but it will give them more money. It will be the first thing we’ve done in a long time to hold down college costs. She believes that upper-income people should pay their kids’ and their grandkids’ tuition.

“This may be the most important thing of all: for people that already have debt, from any source, she thinks they should be able to consolidate their loans. And, first, if they’re at a high interest rate, refinance them. Did you know that college loans are the only loans in America you can’t refinance. … If you let every student in this country with a debt refinance it, at current interest rates tomorrow, overnight 25 million young Americans would save an average of $2,000.”

Clinton said more, and ended up devoting a large chunk of his 45-minute address to higher education.


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