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Hillary Clinton borrowed Bernie Sanders’s big idea on college costs

President Obama Campaigns With Hillary Clinton In Charlotte Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

After clinching the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton made her college affordability plan a whole lot bolder. She's now calling for college tuition at public universities to be free for families making less than $125,000 per year — a dramatic departure from President Obama’s higher education policy that shows the impact Bernie Sanders’s candidacy had on the Democratic Party.

In the past, the presumptive nominee has proposed that students should be able to afford tuition without taking out student loans. But the difference between "affordable tuition" and "free tuition" is a lot bigger than semantics.

Until very recently, the consensus in the Democratic Party was that students should pay for part of their own education, even if they needed loans to do so, because they’d reap the lifelong benefits of earning a college degree. The role of the federal government was to help them afford it, through grants to the poorest students and loans to everyone else.

Sanders upended that consensus. Instead of viewing a college degree as something that ultimately benefits individuals, and that the federal government should help to finance, he saw higher education as something that should be free and accessible to everyone — just as K-12 education is today.

And even though Sanders won’t be the Democratic nominee, Clinton’s plan is a sign that his vision has triumphed.

How Clinton’s higher education plan would work

One reason tuition at state universities has increased sharply in recent years is that public higher education is controlled by states. States subsidize tuition for their residents out of tax revenues. During the recession, most states made deep cuts to their colleges and universities. With less money from those state governments, tuition went up, and even during the recovery that funding hasn’t been entirely restored.

So now Clinton is arguing that it’s time for the federal government to step in and start funding public higher education directly.

She proposed a matching program, much like Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion:

  • The federal government would shoulder some of the cost of lowering tuition through grants to states.
  • In exchange, states would have to kick in some of their own money and agree to lower tuition to zero to students from families making $85,000 or less per year. By 2021, Clinton says, the threshold would increase to $125,000 per year.
  • Students getting the free tuition benefit would have to work 10 hours per week.
  • States would also have to make other commitments. They’d have to make a plan to improve their graduation rates and work to lower the cost of actually providing the education — by, for instance, experimenting with technology to lower the cost of administration.

The bones of this plan have been in place since August. But the major new change is that instead of setting tuition at a level such that low- and middle-income families don’t have to borrow to afford it, states would eliminate tuition altogether instead.

But like Sanders’s plan, an important caveat is that this wouldn’t guarantee free tuition for most Americans automatically. States would have to decide whether to participate in the program, and the lesson of the Medicaid expansion is that many Republican governors might not be interested even if the terms seem to be a very good deal.

Free college doesn’t mean the end of student debt

Cheaper tuition would certainly make college more affordable for students — particularly for those from middle- or upper-middle-class families, who would be among the biggest winners under Clinton’s plan. (Poor students already have much of their tuition covered by Pell Grants and other financial aid, and are a minority of students at public universities.)​ At public four-year colleges, students from families earning between $65,000 and $106,000 pay more than $5,000 per year, on average, in tuition, according to the College Board.

But the plan wouldn’t eliminate student debt entirely. That’s because college costs include more than tuition. College students still have to pay rent, eat, buy books, afford transportation to and from campus, and, in many cases, pay for child care. At public universities, those costs add up to much more than tuition, especially once financial aid is taken into account.

If tuition is totally covered by financial aid, or if tuition is free, Pell Grants for low-income students and student loans can go toward covering these costs. So Clinton’s plan would help poorer students as well, by freeing up more of their money for non-tuition expenses.

The Democratic Party’s view on college costs has changed radically

Four years ago, President Obama and Mitt Romney were fighting not about whether student loans should be necessary at all but about what interest rate students should pay — which would only have amounted to a tiny difference in monthly payments in the vast pool of student debt.

That’s because, until very recently, there was a broad consensus on higher education.

A well-educated population benefits the country as a whole, and so higher education was seen worth subsidizing. But the individual benefits of earning a college degree are significant — college graduates earn more than $1 million more during their lifetimes than nongraduates. So it was seen as reasonable for college students, who are likely to benefit economically if they graduate, to bear part of the cost of their own education, even if they had to borrow in order to do so.

So in the past, Democratic higher education policy had two goals: making it easier for students from the poorest families to afford college upfront, and making the terms of student loans as friendly as possible, even forgiving loans if necessary.

But during the Great Recession, colliding trends destroyed the complacency of that consensus. The recession made a college degree seem more necessary than ever for economic advancement. But it also made the degree itself much more expensive, as states, hit hard by the recession, raised tuition, forcing students to take out more loans. As unemployment spiked, students who already had student loans were struggling to pay them off.

The result was that paying for college went from a safe bet to a terrifying, but mandatory, prospect: Getting a degree was more expensive, and required more loans, than ever. A student loan wasn’t easily repayable "good debt" but a life-changing anchor weighing down graduates. Rather than a safe investment, a college degree was starting to seem like a risky bet. But not going to college was an even worse option — there were few other paths left that led to a comfortable life.

President Obama’s response was to try to use the federal government to make sure that if students were taking on so much debt in order to go to college, they were at least getting value for their money. The Education Department put out new regulations meant to shut down for-profit college programs that didn’t help students get a good-paying job. And Obama proposed rating colleges based on their graduates’ earnings, among other factors, so that students and parents could shop for a college as they would for a car, a refrigerator, or another big purchase.

Obama’s policies were a response to where the crisis had hit worst — most of the increase in student loan defaults was among "nontraditional" students, adults independent of their parents who had enrolled at for-profit colleges and sometimes community colleges. And student debt is most toxic to students who never graduate.

But those ideas didn’t have anything to offer to middle-class families who were most worried that tuition prices were going up much more quickly than their salaries, and for whom student debt had become a catchall for broader economic anxieties. Sanders, on the other hand, offered a simple but bold idea: that college should be free. The fact that Clinton has embraced it shows just how far the party has moved.

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