Clinton Borrows From Bernie

In bid to snag her Democratic opponent's supporters, presumptive nominee adapts previous college plan by embracing free public college tuition for those with incomes up to $125,000.

July 7, 2016

As she heads into the general election campaign versus Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton might be expected to tack to the center as Democratic candidates typically do. But on Wednesday, the presumptive presidential nominee revamped her higher education affordability proposal in ways designed to tap into the liberal (and youthful) support of the opponent she vanquished in the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders.

Throughout the Democratic campaign, Clinton and Sanders clashed over their competing plans to bolster college going and remake higher education financing. Sanders proposed an aggressive push to make public college tuition free for all Americans, while Clinton focused -- in ways that many college officials and financial aid experts applauded -- on ensuring that more Americans could emerge from college without student debt.

But in reframing her higher education plan on Wednesday, Clinton made two major adjustments, both of which put her squarely in Sanders territory, programmatically and rhetorically.

First, the presumptive Democratic nominee proposed that all public colleges and universities be made tuition-free for students from families with incomes of up to $85,000 initially, rising to $125,000 by 2021.

According to her campaign, 80 percent of American families would be able to avoid tuition at public colleges and universities under the plan.

The other major new initiative Clinton offered focused on the student debt issue Sanders has championed. She promised a three-month moratorium for all federal student loan borrowers on repaying their debt, during which time borrowers would get help refinancing their loans or moving into income-driven repayment plans.

"American families are drowning in debt caused by ever-rising college costs," Clinton said in a news release, "and it is imperative that the next president put forward a bold plan to make debt-free college available to all. My New College Compact will do just that -- by making sure that working families can send a child or loved one to college tuition-free and by giving student debt holders immediate relief."

Many advocates for students and supporters of Sanders applauded Clinton's new plan -- and Clinton's pivot quickly produced what seemed to have the intended effect: a statement from Sanders with rare praise for his former opponent, describing the new policies as "a result of the work of both campaigns."

Numerous college leaders and financial aid experts who had preferred Clinton's higher education approach to Sanders's during the campaign took a skeptical view of Clinton's shift, arguing that the free college proposal is unlikely to be enacted because of its huge costs (the Clinton campaign offered no price tag for it) and that the debt moratorium would have little effect because borrowers' interest could continue to accrue.

"It seems pretty clearly like she's trying to get some of the disaffected Bernie voters," said Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University. "It's an attempt to ride the populist wave in this year of populism."

Postprimary, Differences Fade

During the Democratic nominating campaign, their approaches to higher education were a source of consistent contention between Clinton and Sanders.

Sanders set the bar high (financially and otherwise) with his May 2015 proposal for the federal government to award $47 billion a year to states that agree to eliminate undergraduate tuition and fees at their public colleges and universities. Advocates for the Vermont senator's proposal argued that it would resuscitate investment in public higher education (both with new federal funds and additional pressure on states) that would ensure, and in some cases, restore its quality. Sanders's powerful rhetoric about the "crushing impact of student debt" was one of his many positions that won him the support of swarms of young voters.

Clinton put forward her own $350 billion college affordability plan last summer that sought to clearly differentiate the candidate from Sanders by not promising to make higher ed free (or even debt-free) for everyone. The approaches shared important attributes -- both of them depended on new federal-state matching programs that would send billions of dollars to states and colleges with the goal of seeing tuition slashed or eliminated at public institutions. And both talked about ways to hold colleges and states accountable both for supporting quality and for controlling costs.

But aides to the former secretary of state criticized the Sanders plan during the primary campaign because it would "foot the bill for Donald Trump’s kids to go to college," meaning that by using federal and state taxpayer funds to drive public college tuition lower for everyone, the Sanders plan would result in a giveaway even to those who could otherwise afford to pay for college.

The two candidates sparred on various aspects of their plans through the past year, but with the Democratic convention approaching, Clinton has sought various ways to win over Sanders (and by extension the millions of voters whose support he won during the campaign). In a statement about her new postsecondary platform, Clinton aides acknowledged that the plan emerged from her recent meeting with Sanders, and their discussion "about how best to promote the issue in the party’s platform and ensure it remains a core issue in the general election debate."

In its description of the revised plan, the Clinton campaign uses language that is more provocative than she has previously used -- and more clearly evokes Sanders's own rhetoric. It calls student debt a "crisis," says it is holding the economy back, and embraces Sanders's description of the debt problem as "crushing" graduates.

Her new solutions aim to reduce current debt burdens and prevent future ones.

In addition to previously announced plans to allow widespread refinancing of student loans and forgive college debt for business or social enterprise entrepreneurs, Clinton said she would take "immediate executive action" to stop all federal student loan payments for three months. During this "time-out," Clinton said, the Education Department would aggressively encourage borrowers to consolidate their loans, participate in the government's income-driven repayment plans (which the campaign has promised to consolidate from four to one) and help delinquent or defaulting borrowers rehabilitate their loans.

Experts on financial aid questioned the need for and wisdom of such a moratorium. Mark Kantrowitz, publisher and vice president for strategy at Cappex, noted that "borrowers do not need a three-month moratorium for federal student loan payments to consolidate their loans or enroll in an income-driven repayment plan" -- and that the Obama administration has been aggressively promoting enrollment in its income-contingent repayment programs in recent years with only modest success.

Moreover, Kantrowitz said, if interest continues to be charged during the moratorium, as a Clinton spokesperson acknowledged that it would, "it may actually hurt borrowers by causing their loan balances to increase." (The Clinton aide said, though, that the Education Department could "defer payments and refund interest" as part of flexible repayment plans.)

Beth Akers, a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy, said that while getting more borrowers into income-driven repayment "would succeed in getting a lot of folks out of default" on their loans, "it's not clear that the moratorium is an effective way to achieve that end." In fact, she said, a moratorium on payments appears to buy into the idea -- a false one, she said -- that "those borrowers with the largest debt have the biggest problems," when in fact much research shows that "some of the people who are struggling the most are those with smaller amounts of debt but no degree."

The embrace of free public college tuition is an even clearer concession to Sanders, given how pointedly Clinton criticized Sanders for his stance of not having any means testing for his program. The campaign portrayed the new proposal as merely an extension of her vow to keep college goers out of debt, in this case by preventing families with incomes below $85,000 from accumulating debt at all by paying their tuition. "Clinton’s plan would eliminate tuition and fees for working- and middle-class students, which combined with expanded Pell Grants will allow millions of students to graduate with no debt," Demos, a nonprofit group focused on economic equality, said in a statement supporting the Clinton plan.

Sanders virtually gushed over the plan, which he said combined "some of the strongest ideas she fought for during the campaign with some of the principles that I fought for."

“Let me be very clear. This proposal, when implemented, will revolutionize the funding of higher education in America, improve the economic future of our country and make life immediately better for tens of millions of people stuck with high levels of student debt. This proposed legislation will provide free tuition at public colleges and universities for all families in America earning $125,000 a year or less -- 83 percent of our families."

Much of the analysis of the Clinton plan on Wednesday focused on the fact that, as was true of the Sanders proposal, there is little chance of it becoming a reality. Clinton's original affordability plan was estimated to cost $350 billion over a decade, to be financed through a series of increased taxes on wealthy Americans that are nonstarters in a Republican Congress. A Clinton spokesperson said the expansive new initiatives would be paid for "through closing additional high-income tax loopholes -- focusing on loopholes available especially to Wall Street money managers, like hedge funds and private equity firms."

"It doesn't seem like any of this is going to happen any time soon," said Kelchen of Seton Hall.

Others raised philosophical objections. Akers of Brookings said that as Clinton made her plan "more generous, it also became more regressive," since it would arguably cover the tuition and fees of some students whose families could afford to pay it themselves. (Less so than Sanders's plan, Akers acknowledged, but regressive nonetheless.)

She also said she was troubled by the shift Clinton's proposal embraces away from funding higher education mostly through vouchers to students (largely) regardless of where they enroll, toward a system that preferences public institutions over private ones.

While Clinton's new affordability plan, like her previous one, includes a statement that she will "make a major investment in [historically black colleges and universities], minority-serving institutions and other low-cost, modest-endowment private schools" so that their students can "also benefit from the lower cost of college," she has said little to nothing throughout the last year to flesh that out.

"This represents a policy shift at two levels," said Sarah Flanagan, vice president for government relations and policy development at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, whose members would likely lose out significantly under a Clinton/Sanders-style transformation.

"This would vastly increase the federal investment in higher education, almost certainly giving the federal government much more power, while at the same time keeping things very state-centric. And federal policy has historically focused on getting as many people who are qualified to and through college, without any geographic or institutional preference. This would change that by lessening student choice."

Scott Jaschik contributed to this article.

Follow me on Twitter @dougledIHE.


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