Where They Stand: Democrats Focus on Lowering College Tuition, Though Tactics Differ

Dec 18, 2015

After Bernie Sanders announced his proposal to make college free, college affordability has been front and center in the Democratic primary. When it comes to broad goals, the candidates agree. But as for the best way to get there, that’s where they differ.

Click through the interactive below to get a rundown of the Democratic candidates' higher education policy proposals. Story continues below.

Inside the Student Union building at UNH last September, Hillary Clinton talks college affordability to an audience of about 200. It’s a sensible subject for the day, given the setting.  But outside, many students are thinking about a different candidate.

“Bernie Sanders just seems like the best possible candidate for me,” says Rebekah Londoff.  “ He wants to make tuition free.”

Londoff's not alone with that opinion on this campus.  Three days later when Sanders shows up at UNH, 3,000 people come out to hear Sanders talk about his plan to make state colleges and universities tuition free.

Sen. Bernie Sanders appeared at Southern New Hampshire University in August.

Sanders says this would cost $70 billion dollars.  And he’d pay for it with a tax on certain financial transactions. Even if the math adds up, you might wonder how would Sanders get this through Congress.  He has an answer for that.

“The only way that real change takes place in this country is through what I call a political revolution,” Sanders says. "So if I win, I think there’s a fair  assumption that the US Senate will be returned to the Democrats and, in fact, that  we have a chance at the House.”

Back at Hillary Clinton’s college talk, freshman Brian Nguyen says Sanders “definitely has some really good ideas.” Nguyen, however, worries “with a Republican Congress, I don’t know if he can get his policies through.”

For that reason, Nguyen prefers Clinton’s “college compact.”

While Sanders paints his plan in broad strokes, Clinton’s has a few more details.  It relies on students working 10 hours a week, and parents pitching in. States would only get federal funds if they cut costs and tuition. Perhaps most importantly, she would not make state schools tuition free, as Sanders would.  Clinton says her plan would make going to state school “debt free.”

“I think my plan is more comprehensive,” Clinton says, “because I’m aiming at getting costs down, not just putting more money in the system so the costs keep rising.”

Clinton’s plan also includes grants for private colleges, funding for on-campus childcare, and counseling for students at risk of dropping out.

Hillary Clinton talks college affordability at UNH in September.
Credit Emily Corwin / NHPR

Clinton says she’d pay for her plan with the $350 billion she’d raise by closing unspecified tax loopholes.

Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley has a plan to make college affordable, too.  On paper, it looks a lot like Hilary Clinton’s. Although unlike Clinton, he focuses on the role states will have to play.I believe that states, all of us,” O’Malley says, “should set a goal at public universities of tying tuition to median family incomes.”

O’Malley would offer federal dollars to states that bring tuition down to 10 percent of their median income. He’d also increase Pell Grants. And, he says he’d pay for it with a more modest version of Sanders’ Financial Transaction Tax.

For grads with student loans - Democratic candidates agree: cut interest rates, allow refinancing, encourage income-based repayment. But the best way to prevent those loans in the first place? On that, Democratic voters have some decisions to make.