This week Hillary Clinton released a big, complicated campaign proposal she calls the New College Compact. It's stuffed with ideas that have been brought up by other presidential candidates, both to the left and the right: free tuition (Bernie Sanders); debt-free college (Martin O'Malley); more affordable student loan repayment (Marco Rubio); and lowering costs overall (Jeb Bush).
One big takeaway from all this is that college affordability may have become the mainstream, crowd-pleasing middle-class issue of the moment, like homeownership or Social Security or health care in previous eras. And when you read between the lines of Clinton's plan, what emerges are a lot of shifts in how Americans perceive, and achieve, what is increasingly a requirement for prosperity: a college degree.
Here are some of those new realities.
Community college is more important than ever.
Two-year colleges enroll 40 percent of undergraduates in the United States. Clinton's proposal would make public two-year colleges tuition-free. President Obama proposed the same thing at the start of the year. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a higher education scholar at the University of Wisconsin, Madison who was an architect of Obama's proposal, suggests that this is all leading to a public guarantee of 14, rather than 12, years of free education.
Commuting — not living on campus — is the new normal.
Clinton's proposal would hand out incentive grants to states that agree to guarantee "no-loan tuition" for public universities. But at public colleges on average, living expenses like room and board cost as much as tuition. So avoiding debt could lead to more and more students foregoing the classic tropes of campus life, from frat-house living to unlimited soft serve in the dining hall. Those perks may fall under the ax anyway: Under the New College Compact, the money would go only to institutions that agree to cut costs and apply the funds strictly to instruction, not to hot tubs and climbing walls.
Some public institutions are getting less public.
Tuition makes up nearly half of the revenue that public colleges are collecting these days, a proportion that is growing. Reversing that trend will not be easy.
The thrust of Clinton's plan addresses the public institutions that 80 percent of students attend. Earlier this year, I spoke with the president of one of those institutions, F. King Alexander of Louisiana State University.
"We need federal leverage and incentives to keep states in the public higher education business," he told me. "If we do not utilize federal leverage, if the trends continue as is, states will stop spending a penny on higher education." He calls Clinton's plan "innovative and highly needed." He met with Clinton's team about a week ago and advocated for the federal government to do exactly what her plan calls for: provide grants to states contingent on their reinvesting in higher ed.
But "leverage" and "incentives" are not a mandate. States under budget pressure could say "no thanks" to Clinton's proposed incentive grants, and so could individual universities. "We'd be naive to think that everyone is on the same page with these goals," says Goldrick-Rab.
You'll definitely have a job while studying. 41 percent of full-time students are employed these days. A 10-hour-a-week job for students is part of the expected family contribution for federal financial aid under Clinton's plan.
Going back to college as a parent will be easier. More than a quarter of undergraduates — almost 5 million people — are raising kids of their own. Clinton's plan offers new federal grants to colleges and universities for investing in supports that have been shown to get more low-income and first-generation students across the finish line to graduation. One of the specific ideas mentioned in the plan is having on-campus, quality day care.
Paying back loans will get simpler (if not cheaper).
Clinton wants to make it seamless — even automatic — to enroll in income-based repayment. This is a program that limits student loan payments to a small percentage of income, and forgives the balance after 20 years.
As we've written, income-based repayment can reduce the burden of repayment and the risk of falling into default. But stretching out the payments may not be the best deal financially for everyone. You end up paying more interest over the life of the loan, and there currently is a large tax bill for graduates the year the balance is forgiven.
Short-term, online and other experimental approaches will be ever more prominent.
As we've covered extensively, there's a burgeoning sector of unaccredited, for-profit "boot camps" and online "coder schools" that promise to bridge the gap between education and employment and provide essential skills quickly. Clinton's plan seeks to make federal student-aid funds available to any program that can demonstrate results, whether or not it fits the traditional mold, and whether it's for undergraduates or lifelong learners.
RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Here's a number tough number to contemplate - student loan debt surpassed $1.2 billion this year, second only to the country's mortgage debt. That's become an issue for both Republicans and Democrats in the presidential race. Yesterday, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton rolled out a proposal to make it possible for students to attend public colleges without taking on debt. The price tag? $350 billion over 10 years. For more on how this might work, we turn now to Anya Kamenetz of NPR's ED team. Good morning.
ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: Good morning, Renee.
MONTAGNE: What are the highlights?
KAMENETZ: So as you mentioned, you know, we've got $1.2 trillion dollars of student loan debt, and Clinton wants to create a debt-free path to a four-year college degree at public universities around the country. And on top of that, she's talking about tuition-free community college and a number of changes to the student loan program.
MONTAGNE: Now that's pretty ambitious. How is she proposing to get all this done?
KAMENETZ: Well, that's a really good question. I mean, obviously she has to get elected first, and then convince Congress. And then after that, the federal government doesn't really have direct authority over public institutions. That really belongs to the states, so what Clinton's team is proposing is essentially a system of incentive grants that would go to states that, in-turn, would hand them to institutions that agree to do certain things like lowering the cost of attendance or actually eliminating tuition when it comes to community colleges.
MONTAGNE: Does that mean, then, that colleges or states might say, well, they'd prefer to keep raising tuition rather than cut it?
KAMENETZ: Well, that's exactly right. You know, tuition has been increasing, it currently makes up nearly half the revenue that public colleges are collecting these days. And, you know, to be fair, it's a pretty difficult undertaking to try to serve working-class or middle-class students, raise graduation rates and bend the cost curve all at the same time. And that's exactly what this plan is asking states and institutions to do.
MONTAGNE: And what about the changes to the student loan program? That is something that the federal government controls.
KAMENETZ: That's exactly right. So with student debt, Clinton is adopting proposals that have been advocated by progressives and folks like Senator Elizabeth Warren for years. And that includes cutting all the interest rates on student loan debts so that the federal government doesn't collect revenue from that program and also allowing more people to refinance at new, cheaper rates and making it easier and simpler for borrowers to enroll in something called income-based repayment. That's an existing program that's underutilized that ties your loan payments to your income to make it a lot more affordable.
MONTAGNE: So are you saying that with this plan - I mean, you mentioned Senator Warren - Clinton is responding to the ideas that have been put forward on the left?
KAMENETZ: Well, you know, it's interesting. There are ideas in here from Bernie Sanders, from Martin O'Malley. At the same time, Senator Marco Rubio, who's vying for the Republican nomination, has put forward a lot of ideas similar to this, including a bill in Congress that would enroll every student borrower in an income-based plan. So there really is some convergence here and recognition, I think, from all major candidates that college affordability is important, and it's something that's top of mind.
MONTAGNE: Thanks for joining us.
KAMENETZ: Thank you so much, Renee.
MONTAGNE: Anya Kamenetz is part of NPR's ED team. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.