Hillary Clinton’s college plan: Could parts of it fly with Republicans?

Hillary Clinton's sweeping plan for college affordability makes education a top-tier issue for her campaign. Conservatives view federal dollars flowing to higher education as a massive subsidy that lets colleges off the cost-cutting hook.

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton listens to a question from the audience during a community forum in Keene, New Hampshire August 11, 2015.

Hillary Clinton's sweeping plan for college affordability makes education a top-tier issue for her campaign, one designed to strike a chord with young voters. Like most big social issues, though, it also reveals a deep philosophical divide between the parties.

Republicans lost no time on Monday criticizing her announcement of a $350 billion plan that would make four-year public colleges loan-free, make community colleges tuition-free, and reduce interest rates on student debt. She would offset costs by limiting tax breaks for wealthy families.

That's a tax hike, said former Florida governor and GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush. Also, “We don’t need more top-down Washington solutions that will raise the cost of college even further,” he said in a statement.

Conservatives view federal dollars flowing to higher education as a massive subsidy that lets colleges and universities off the cost-cutting and efficiency hook. Under this view, the increased federal funds simply give schools the room to raise tuition.

Democrats, on the other hand, say the Great Recession knocked the breath out of public education budgets, with states decreasing spending on higher education by an average 20 percent since 2008, according to a May report by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. States have tried to solve their budget problems on the backs of students, and the federal government needs to step in and ease this situation, the Democrats say.

Still, it isn’t all discord between Republicans and Democrats on college affordability. For example, parts of Mrs. Clinton’s plan, called the "New College Compact," include areas of agreement between Democrats and Republicans.

In the past decade, tuition at four-year public universities has increased by 42 percent, and student debt is now nearly $1.3 trillion, according to the College Board.

One measure of federal spending on higher education is the Pell Grant – need-based grants for undergraduate students. That spending has increased substantially during the Obama administration – up 158 percent between 2006 and 2011, according to the independent Congressional Budget Office.

“What it really comes down to is the federal government has been involved in subsidizing higher ed for decades,” says Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action, an advocacy organization for conservative policy.

But Democrats have drawn opposite conclusions, saying that students and families need more help from the federal government in managing college costs.

This is why President Obama, for one, suggested in January a $60 billion plan for free community college. It’s gone nowhere, however, in the GOP-controlled Congress.

“I think the vast majority of voters are going to want candidates for president [and for Congress] to have a solution here,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D) of Hawaii in a conference call with reporters Monday. “What Jeb Bush is saying is ... if he were president, this would not be his problem.”

Senator Schatz went on to praise Clinton’s plan as a “serious” and “multifaceted” approach. Although Mr. Bush was quick to criticize it, along with the Republican National Committee and Bush’s Floridian presidential competitor, Sen. Marco Rubio (R), the plan does show some aspects of bipartisanship.

For instance, Clinton agrees with Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate education committee, that the federal application for financial aid should be simplified. And like some Republicans, she wants to consolidate student loan repayment plans.

Clinton also backs a bipartisan proposal to hold colleges accountable by having them pay part of the debt when students default on federal loans.

“We will make sure colleges and universities have more skin in the game,” she said at a town-hall meeting in New Hampshire Monday, where she unveiled her plan. “If they load students up with debt for programs that don't lead to good-paying jobs, students and taxpayers should not be the only ones left holding the bag.”

The New College Compact is designed to use federal funds as an incentive to get states to move to “loan free” tuition.

Democrats see college affordability as a winning issue. More than 70 percent of likely voters support debt-free college, according to a January poll by GBA Strategies on behalf of the Progressive Change Institute. Moreover, among Democrats who didn’t vote in the 2014 elections, college affordability was the top issue that would have motivated them to vote if candidates had campaigned on it, according to Morley Winograd, president of the nonprofit Campaign for Free College Tuition.

One of Clinton’s competitors for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I) of Vermont, has also put forward an affordability plan, which goes even further by proposing that public higher education be tuition-free, not just debt-free. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, another Democrat seeking the White House, has also released a plan.

Democrats are getting behind the affordability issue because it resonates not only with Millennials, but also with parents, Mr. Winograd says. 

“It’s a very clear dividing line between all Democratic candidates, who are committed to the concept in one way or another, and all GOP candidates, none of whom have supported the concept,” he said in an e-mail.

“Any candidate who demonstrates a tin ear on the topic will get killed by the electorate next fall,” Winograd added.

Senator Rubio is one Republican presidential contender who is emphasizing higher education. Although he often mentions the trials of paying off his own student loans and has a student debt plan, his focus is on education innovation.

Calling Clinton’s plan “outdated,” Rubio wants to “modernize” higher education to include more online and vocational training, and more flexibility for working adults who also need to support their families. He supports changing the accreditation system to promote nontraditional education providers.

Republican candidates aren’t as unified on higher education as Democrats, nor are they speaking about it as much – if at all.

“This has been a big challenge for the Republican Party,” acknowledges Mr. Holler. Republicans know they don’t want to throw more federal money at the problem, he says, but fixing it is another matter.

“They struggled with it in 2012, and they’re continuing to struggle with it,” he says. It’s not for lack of ideas, but “because they haven’t wrapped their collective head around the ideas.”

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