Debt-Free College: Democrats' Plank, GOP's Challenge

Debt-Free College: Democrats' Plank, GOP's Challenge
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Republican presidential candidates on Monday said they were unimpressed with Hillary Clinton’s $350 billion debt-free tuition plan unveiled in New Hampshire, even as tens of millions of American families struggle with college sticker shock. 

At last week’s GOP debate in Cleveland, Sen. Marco Rubio used his personal IOUs as a way to connect with some of those same families.

“How is Hillary Clinton going to lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I was raised paycheck to paycheck. How is she going to lecture me about student loans? I owed over $100,000 just four years ago,” he said Thursday, referring to his education loan debts at age 40. “If I'm our nominee, we will be the party of the future.” 

Rubio on Monday dismissed Clinton’s detailed proposals as a Democratic invitation to hike taxes. 

“All that she’s talking about is ‘Let’s raise taxes and let’s pour a bunch of money into a 20th century outdated model,'” Rubio said on Fox News. “This is the thing they always do on the left. She has to figure out who to raise taxes on.”

Rubio, who prefers competition and “flexibility” in higher education, advocated creating unspecified alternatives to traditional four-year college programs that would measure academic success based on how much students learn rather than how much time they spend in a classroom.

Tiffany Trump, daughter of Donald Trump and Marla Maples, chose her father’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, to study business. Maples, an actress and Trump’s second wife, raised their daughter in California and spoke in 2013 about life as a single mother, her credit card debts and “financial chaos.” She says that when it came to affording UPenn, Tiffany’s “daddy, of course, took care of school, her education.”

Clinton’s argument, without naming the GOP candidates Monday, is that many more Americans find themselves in Rubio’s financial boat, paying down college and graduate school debts for decades, than in Trump’s situation, able to swing tuition payments without loans.

Clinton, in her own way, made the case that at public colleges and universities, all hard-working students deserve a Trump-like experience: a good education, free of loans and debt.

Affordable, debt-free college is now an economic policy plank for all the Democratic presidential candidates, who believe it resonates across political parties, across economic strata, and with young people as well as with their parents and grandparents. 

Republicans may be flouting public opinion when they dismiss the urgency behind various college affordability ideas proposed by states, by President Obama, by progressive advocacy groups, by lawmakers, and by the Democratic presidential candidates, including Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont (sponsor of a bill to make tuition free, paid for with a transaction tax on hedge funds), and a competing plan unveiled July 8 by former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley.

Only about a fifth of Americans say college is affordable even if it’s available, and Americans believe a college degree is increasingly important in today’s economy.

At four-year colleges, average tuition bills have grown more than 250 percent compared with 30 years ago, “and rising costs are likely a big reason why higher education seems out of reach for many in the United States,” according to the Gallup Organization. 

Clinton pointed to years of state budget cuts as reasons behind rising tuitions and costs at public colleges and universities. 

She wants to cap itemized tax deductions that benefit the wealthy at 28 percent, and use $350 billion of the revenues over 10 years to help underwrite $200 billion in federal incentives to states in the form of grants. Qualifying states would agree to “no-loan tuitions” at four-year public colleges and universities. She also favors Obama’s two-year, “free” community college proposal for qualifying students, and would cap student loan debt repayment at 10 percent of a borrower’s income. Clinton also proposes lowering the interest rates on outstanding student debts. 

To the cheering audiences whose ears perk up when they hear about the prospect of lower college costs, the fact remains that Congress would have to act, and thus any federal relief remains years away.

Nonetheless, Clinton’s proposal, entering the public conversation as students are returning to campuses nationwide, attracted headlines that described her “new college compact” as “sweeping,” “bold,” and “big.” 

But that’s not how her GOP opponents reacted, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who believes Congress should butt out of state education decisions, rather than seek to expand its influence.

"We don’t need more top-down Washington solutions that will raise the cost of college even further and shift the burden to hardworking taxpayers,” Bush said. In a statement, he added that students need “more individualization and choices” in college, which he said would “drive down overall costs.”

Bush, a fan of online classes as economical alternatives, may have ideas about lowering college costs, but he said nothing Monday about lowering families’ college debt burdens, which are eye-popping considering the current employment picture, flat-lined wages, and rising costs for essentials including housing and food. Americans have more than $1.2 trillion in outstanding student loan debt, and there are 40 million borrowers with average balances of $29,000. 

“We know this is a winning issue and so do all the Democratic candidates across the country,” Kayla Wingbermuehle, debt-free college campaign director for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a conference call following Clinton’s event. 

It’s why O’Malley has called college debts a “crisis,” and Sanders argues it’s an economic imperative. 

The former New York senator and secretary of state will revisit her higher education plan Tuesday in New Hampshire, and Friday and Saturday while campaigning in Iowa. 

Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at asimendinger@realclearpolitics.com.  Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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