Hillary Clinton Embraces the Heart of Education Reform Now’s College Affordability Plan


August 12, 2015

By Michael Dannenberg

Our overall take on Hillary Clinton’s “New College Compact” is that it’s smart, balanced, and thorough. Clinton has yet to go as far as we would like on education reform, but her higher education plan shows she’s committed to bridging the Democratic Party’s divide on resources and reform. Look for her to emphasize the resources part in the primary and the reform part in the general election, should she get there.




The heart of what Clinton proposed is essentially Education Reform Now’s plan to “cap student debt” at low levels for students, states, and colleges meeting a variety of responsibility components.  She doesn’t market it that way, but that’s what the plan does. (Disclosure: our staff has put forth this idea in a variety of forms over several years here (2007), here (2009), here (2013), here (2014), and here (2015). So we’re partial.)

Related: A Strategy to Ensure College Affordability – “Personal and & Political Responsibility Revisited”

In some ways, Clinton goes further than us. For those who have to borrow, Clinton couples in a Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposal to cut student loan interest rates. And for those out of school and who have already borrowed, she’d create a new ability to refinance outstanding student loan debt at low interest rates.

Cumulatively, Clinton’s plan invests $350 billion over 10 years into college affordability paid for by limiting how much wealthy itemizers can deduct from their taxes. Half of her plan would go to financing a new cap on student debt offered in exchange for various reforms. Half would fund the rest, mainly the interest rate reduction and refinancing.

Clinton’s campaign has released detailed fact sheets. Below is our thumbnail analysis.

“Smart, Balanced, & Thorough”

Smart: Clinton markets her plan as a “no debt for tuition” promise, but it’s the same thing as our new “cap on student debt” proposal given room, board, and book expenses. An even tighter connection to our plan is Clinton’s linking of increased resources for college affordability with student, state, and college responsibility reforms. Students would be expected to contribute earnings from approximately 10 hours a week of work. Colleges would be expected to pick up a share of student loan default costs. States would be expected to maintain their commitment to college financing and distribute funds in a way that rewards colleges for their performance against access and completion metrics.

Hillary Clinton thinks of college affordability as a shared responsibility. She’s right. We will never bend the college cost curve in a significant way without incentivizing states, colleges, and students all to act differently.

Balanced: Hillary Clinton doesn’t propose the liberal dream that college should be free or debt-free for everyone. Her staff recognizes what we’ve said; that voters don’t like the idea of everyone getting a free lunch. (For the record, I’d love for college to be free.)

Related: Debt-Free College: Something New, Something Borrowed

More important, Clinton couples what still is a big infusion of resources with reforms. She doesn’t just propose more money for college aid (the typical Democratic position). Her plan has a variety of stakeholder responsibility components. It includes accountability for poor performing colleges. It ties college accreditation to student outcomes. It continues the crackdown on for-profit trade schools that cost too much and deliver too little. It discusses opening up the higher education space to more providers like those who provide postsecondary education courses but are not part of postsecondary institutions of higher education per se. (Much of that other than the for-profit stuff is Republican fare — only Clinton couples with it giant resources.)

Thorough: Clinton may be the front-runner, but she’s not keeping her agenda vague. Her college affordability plan is far more thoughtful and thorough than other plans released thus far. It’s designed to make college cheaper and better. It alters the current incentive structure underlying financial aid to promote completion and cost containment. Philosophically, it shifts the federal student aid design away from a near-exclusive voucher system to something that also aims to move state and institution policy – the key to bending the college cost curve.

“More, Please”

Look, we’d like Hillary Clinton to go further on reform. Four-year college dropout factories with graduation rates of less than 15% (there are about 105 of them) should be given help to improve, but also put on clear notice to improve or get cut off from federal financial aid.  Engines of inequality like (the public!) University of Virginia with its working-class enrollment ranking in the bottom five percent of all colleges nationwide should have to improve quickly or get punched as well. Same with colleges letting in lots of minorities and then flunking them out quickly — that’s not a real commitment to diversity or socioeconomic mobility. And we’d argue that through a sample “Higher Ed NAEP” we should get a read on how states compare to one another in terms of how much graduates are actually learning anything in terms of basic reading, problem-solving, and writing skills. We think the same with respect to the postsecondary education achievement gap among racial groups.

Related: It’s Time for a “Higher Ed NAEP”

But all that can still be addressed as the campaign season proceeds. For now, Hillary Clinton has set up a clear distinction with fellow Democrats and Republicans. She’s going big on resources and reform for higher education. If you want colleges to be cheaper and better, you should be for the Clinton plan. And when you couple in universal Pre-K, well, if you care about education, as of now it’s a no-brainer choice.