by Michael Dannenberg

Below is our 30,000 feet high view of the main difference between Senator Sanders and Vice President Biden’s 2020 Presidential campaign higher education plans.

— Editor’s Note: Late breaking **UPDATE** at the conclusion of this piece. —

The trade publication Inside Higher Ed already has done fine job summarizing the details of the Sanders and Biden plans. You can look there to begin drilling down.

The big picture main difference between the two plans is size and cost. Sanders’ higher ed plan is approximately three times as large as Biden’s and carries a $2.2 trillion price tag over 10 years. But philosophically the choice is more nuanced.

Biden’s $750 billion proposal is still extraordinarily large. For perspective, $750 billion over 10 years basically doubles the entire U.S. Department of Education budget over the same period of time. And that’s to say nothing of either Biden or Sanders’ K-12 plans that also carry very big price tags.

We submit with respect to their education platforms, philosophically the Sanders-Biden choice is “liberal versus progressive” as opposed to “socialist versus moderate.” Sanders doesn’t ban private colleges out of existence, for example. And Biden’s higher ed plan is extraordinarily robust compared to that embraced by any prior Democratic President or current member of the House and Senate Democratic leadership.

That said, Sanders’ and Biden’s college affordability plans have some notable other big picture political and technical differences.

Sanders offers a clear, compelling for many, higher ed message of free college and student loan debt cancelation for all. The strength of Sanders’ message and promise to cover two and four year public colleges are among the best parts of his plan. College is definitely too expensive, period full stop. It’s also true though that too many families overestimate the cost of college and underestimate the amount of financial aid for which they’re eligible. A college for everyone message is inspiring and counters that misimpression.

But when you peel away the surface, in addition to the big expense (including for those who don’t need the help), opportunity cost, and hazard of encouraging reckless future student loan lending and borrowing, there are very reasonable concerns with Sanders’ plan.

He still effectively requires working class families to take on student loan debt for non-tuition and fee full-time college attendance costs (e.g. housing, food, books, transportation). Most borrowers who default do so with relatively small amounts of student loans owed. So even a small amount of student debt is dangerous for many. He doesn’t deal with the Affordable Care Act problem of families who live in states that choose not to participate in his plan. There’s no college accountability for results.

Biden’s plan is good in that in general it’s targeted on the neediest families, but it’s suboptimal in being limited to tuition and fees at only community colleges. Doing so furthers the danger of “under matching.” All things being equal, a student eligible to attend a four-year college that chooses to attend a two-year community college instead is 30 percentage points less likely to complete than if they had initially enrolled in a four-year college for which they were eligible. Peers, institution resources, and difficulty in transferring credit all significantly affect the likelihood of degree attainment.

Biden would double the maximum Pell Grant, which in contrast to Sanders’ plan would reduce student loan debt to zero for most working-class and low-income community college students and insulate against some of the Affordable Care Act non-state participation danger.

Notably, Sanders does not propose an increase in Pell Grant funding. Biden would not only do so but would also make Pell Grant aid available to dual enrollment high school students, which should be an equity imperative especially for the sizable number of students from low-income families who are college ready before 12th grade begins.

Best would be a plan that provides a robust, progressive package of college affordability and completion support to needy families rather than a partial, regressive package to all families. A robust, progressive free college or debt-free college package that in effect pulls the best parts from both the Sanders and Biden plans and leverages change in K-12 college preparation (as well as includes some higher education accountability) is more likely to result in degree completion and economic mobility, whereas a partial and regressive package could end up harming a number of students, as well as taxpayers, in the form of heightened dropout levels and worsening inequality.

Fortunately, policymaking is an iterative process. There is plenty of time for the Democratic Party’s 2020 standard bearer, if not the next President for that matter, to improve their higher education agenda or for state leaders to pick up wherever the next President falls short.

We shouldn’t be wasteful, but we also shouldn’t do free college on the cheap.

***UPDATE*** Vice President Biden has expanded his plan, expressly fusing in a key Sanders’ element — extension of his zero tuition and fee promise to two- and four-year public colleges. And like former candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan, Biden has expanded his plan to extend that tuition and fee free promise to families earning up to $125,000 a year in income, which is essentially the bottom 80% of all families.

Good for Biden in countering the under matching phenomenon. And when coupled with his proposal to double Pell, good for Biden in essentially promising a ‘”debt-free” education to working class and low-income families. (Disclosure: The “Debt-Free” college idea originated with our staff’s work dating back well before Secretary Clinton proposed the same, so we’re partial.) 

Next step, Mr. Vice President, expand your higher ed plan to leverage change in high school preparation for college, college selection, and college accountability as well. As the Institute for Higher Education Policy’s Konrad Mugglestone and I pointed out some time ago, Making Promises Worth Keeping demands more.

Detailed recommendations for Massachusetts can be found here (pp.17-23).

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There’s a rumor in D.C., and it’s one that could pose a challenge for Democrats.

The buzz in Washington is that President Trump, concerned about a populist challenge from the Warren – Sanders left on student debt, may choose to tackle the rising price of college. Unnamed administration officials have floated a series of trial balloons, including institution risk-sharing for student loan default costs. Trump’s political people are groping for an easily communicated policy that doesn’t lead to tuition inflation and works as a counter to the Democrats’ various free college and student loan forgiveness plans.

To keep their edge on the issue and do right by students, Democrats should pre-emptively counter President Trump by going beyond free college and student loan forgiveness plans now being offered.

Specifically, a presidential hopeful would be smart to target high-price, super-wealthy colleges that choose to be bad actors on access and affordability by leveraging the availability of non-student grant aid federal funds and substantial federal tax benefits. Message: “Do better or pay a price.”

Bad stories abound of some of the wealthiest non-profit private colleges like George Washington University and Georgetown, with sticker prices in the $70,000 a year range for upper-income families. Some, like New York University and Hofstra, charge students from families living in and near poverty over $25,000 a year after all grant and scholarship aid. That’s not ok.

At the same time, there is the Felicity Huffman-Lori Loughlin national college admissions scandal and deafening silence in Congress on underlying legal corruption in college admissions reflected in legacy, donor, and early decision preference policies.

The Good Place (Season 4, Episode 2) on preferential treatment for legacy students in college admissions from NBC via Vimeo
And then there’s the group of about 100 rich colleges that combine high price and admissions barriers to exclude large numbers of academically talented students who come from the bottom 50% of the income scale.

Top-flight colleges should be engines of socioeconomic mobility, not vehicles for calcifying inequality.

Democrats can ensure they keep their edge on the college access and affordability issue by proposing a higher ed accountability package targeted on high resource schools.

Such a proposal should do at least three things: (1) cap tuition and fee growth at super-wealthy colleges that needlessly charge working class and poor students tuition and fees; (2) condition tax-exempt status on schools getting rid of unfair admission practices like legacy, donor and early decision preferences that undermine diversity and don’t reward true merit, including overcoming the odds; and (3) institute a public service fee or link the size of the GOP’s new endowment tax on rich colleges that are unaffordable for or don’t enroll their fair share of academically talented working-class and low-income students.

If a candidate wants to up the ante, he or she could include a call for a temporary tuition and fee freeze at public colleges until Congress moves the nominee’s comprehensive college affordability plan. Public college tuition is slated to be pretty flat this year.

Dartmouth, with its $5.7 billion endowment, shouldn’t charge anything to students from working-class and low-income families.

Notre Dame, with nearly a quarter of students who are descendants of alumni, shouldn’t have a legacy preference.

The University of Virginia, a public college mind you, should not be filling just over 10% of its class with Pell Grant students when twice that percentage score in the 90th percentile and higher on the ACT.

If a presidential hopeful won’t step up, a Democrat in Congress should as part of the pending Higher Education Act rewrite and force a vote on this type of package or portions thereof.

Capitol Hill staff will be scared for their bosses ruffling the feathers of the donor class and try to dissuade the effort. But no politician wants to be on the record defending badly behaved rich colleges. Elected leaders just need a little push to show courage on the college access issue in all its forms, and before it’s too late, whose side they’re really on.

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A version of this post appeared previously as an op-ed in the New York Daily News.

By Michael Dannenberg 

In wake of the on-going national college admissions scandal, every candidate for state or national office should be asked a simple question: “How do you plan to make college cheaper, fairer, and better?” Not just cheaper, but fairer and better because we’ve got serious equity and quality challenges in higher education.

A couple of weeks ago, we suggested four ways to make college cheaper. Today, we offer four more ways to make college fairer with a brief pro-con analysis of each.

Here we go.

Goal: Make College “Fairer” in Admissions, Enrollment, and Student Service. The admissions and financial aid systems are rigged to ensure selective colleges, including state flagships, are filled not with the most meritorious students but those from the highest income backgrounds. All too often, low-income and racial minority students effectively are shunted into under resourced, non-selective public four-year institutions and two-year community colleges — often due to inadequate high school preparation. Those qualified to attend selective, four-year colleges who under match into other institutions are 30 percentage points less likely to complete than equally qualified peers. And time and again, we see colleges with similarly qualified student bodies with similar characteristics generating wildly different rates of success with racial minority students. Bottom line: America’s education equity issues extend to higher education.

Moderate Proposals:

Idea #1A & 1B: Use federal aid to advance college admissions reform. (A) Provide up to $50 million in aid to institutions that make use of “supplemental, class-based affirmative action” in admissions. (B) Ban the legacy preference, binding early decision, and donor preferences at any college that does not evidence “a meaningful commitment to diversity” (i.e. enroll and graduate a significant number of low-income and racial minority students).

Pros: Supplemental class-based affirmative action (i.e. in addition to race-based affirmative action) builds on past suggestion of former Harvard President Derek Bok and current College Board work. Preference ban recommendation echoes past proposal by the Hispanic Education Coalition and others.

Cons: Attacking the underpinnings of elite higher education admissions risks alienating members of the donor class. Regardless, touching any aspect of the admissions issues triggers an intense debate over race-based affirmative action. Privately, some may oppose pro-socioeconomic mobility and diversity admission reform policies fearing a backlash against race-based affirmative action. Publicly, opponents will argue reform efforts are intrusive and reflective of an elitist view of inequity in higher education opportunity.

Idea #2: Institute a higher education public service fee charged to colleges with indefensibly poor working class and low-income Pell Grant student enrollment levels. After being given time to improve, the public service fee can take the form of an increase in the recently passed GOP endowment tax on super wealthy schools or creation of a new, public service fee for participation in the federal student loan program charged to colleges that operate as “engines of inequality.” Higher education public service fee generated revenue should disbursed to HBCUs, minority serving institutions, and other under resourced, high Pell-serving four-year schools.

Pros: Pits elite colleges and their defenders against HBCUs and other high Pell-serving institutions. Works off of current law concepts (i.e. the GOP’s 2017 endowment tax and later inserted McConnell exception for Kentucky’s Berea College) as well as pending legislation (i.e. the Coons-Rosen ASPIRE bill) endorsed by the NEA, education reformers, and higher education leaders, including the University of California’s Chancellor and Princeton University’s President.

Cons: Will be characterized as a quota capable of being gamed and an attack on academic freedom. Prompts debate on affirmative action that consistently polls poorly.

Bold Proposals:

Idea #3: Link high school reform and improvement policies to any free college or debt-free college federal-state partnership proposal. Attach dedicated funds for, and condition, free college or debt-free college on implementation of high school reforms, including upgrading high school curricula for all, default placement of all students on a college prep academic track, supplemental tutoring and summer support for those academically behind, a college and career counselor in every high school, and district accountability for college enrollment, placement, and completion.

 Pros: Fills a yawning gap in K-12 education debate without touching testing. Expands political coalition behind college affordability to K-12 advocates and interests. Good policy in that high school curricular rigor is the number one influence on college completion.

Cons: Expensive. Limited examples of successful high school reform and improvement. Pushing all students on a college prep track in high school triggers the “Is college really for everyone?” debate, which polls poorly.

Idea #4: Accountability for all colleges, all programs, and all student groups. As a condition of aid receipt by institutions of higher education, require college leaders to set ambitious goals on access, affordability, and completion for students overall and specifically those who are members of historically underserved and disadvantaged groups. Require that goals be set institution-wide and for targeted program areas of sufficient size within, such as STEM enrollment and student performance. Provide direct aid to institutions for recruitment, support, and completion programs with proven track records of success, such as: systematic consideration of a student’s environmental context in admissions assessments; on-campus supports, including academic counseling, tutoring, and emergency financial aid; and use of data analytics to restructure programs and redesign courses (e.g. flipped classrooms). Attach consequences for institutions that continually and despite repeated warnings enroll low percentages of Pell students on the access front or lag on completion either overall or in terms of closing gaps, such as: conditioned board of trustee reappointment; college president appointment and compensation; financial audit; and limitations on non-academic, new construction capital funding (e.g. residence life, athletic facilities, etc…).

Pros: There’s a strong civil rights coalition that backed the K-12 Every Students Succeeds Act (ESSA) that can be expected to back a higher ed accountability proposal. Examples abound of successful institutions on the equity front as well as lagging peers. Recommended proposal avoids the testing issue, which is not present in higher ed in nearly the same way it is in K-12.

Cons: Will be smeared as NCLB for higher ed. Similarly, will be criticized as first step on a slippery slope toward postsecondary teacher evaluation based on student test scores and decline in academic standards. Privately, elite institutions will claim proposal undermines commitment to scientific discovery and academic freedom. Not clear that non-financial consequences will be enough to motivate change. Opponents will claim financial consequences for institutions will be passed on to and harm students.

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by Michael Dannenberg

Over the next several weeks, we’re regularly going to identify an education goal and put forth in brief at least one new idea and a short, pro-con analysis. Most of the time, we’ll put forth a series of ideas to consider.

Batter up.

Make College “Cheaper” for Families, Debtors, and Taxpayers.

Almost all 2020 college affordability proposals are directed at the price families pay during and after enrollment rather than the cost of education services. Up-front price reduction proposals (i.e. free college) tend to focus only on community college tuition and fee costs and are regressively designed to help mainly middle and upper-middle income households. Post-enrollment debt relief plans tend to be broad brush, but similarly regressive as well as extremely expensive for taxpayers and with in dollar terms relatively little impact on the neediest households.

Our ideas:

Moderate Proposals:

Idea #1: Want to make college cheaper? Reduce time-to-degree. Imagine if we could have students complete high school and college in seven years as opposed to eight or eight as opposed to nine as is now the norm for those who complete a bachelor’s degree. Based on ACT data, 25% of high school seniors are academically ready for college-level work before 12th grade begins. One-third of them come from low-income households. Let’s rethink 12th grade and create a “Freshman Year for Free” fast track to and through college for those ready and willing. It would take about $100 million to expand AP, dual enrollment, and EdX on-line college course options sufficiently and equitably to all fast track able students.

Critically for fast track 12th graders and regular higher ed students, we should accompany any early college-level coursework opportunity expansion with a guarantee that introductory college course credits transfer among all in-state public colleges. Econ 101 is not that different from one school to the next. Yet currently, transfer students lose approximately 40% of all college credits accumulated regardless of level and provider.

Idea #2: Debt Swap. Those most hurting with student loans are those with extraordinarily high private loan debt levels and those with very low-income levels. So, we suggest debt swap refinancing of outstanding high interest private student loans into low interest and better repayment term federal student loans. Extend bankruptcy protection beyond credit card and other consumer debt to student loans as well.

Pros: The fast track idea addresses “senioritis,” represents innovative thinking, and reduces the cost of college for families and taxpayers by speeding time-to-degree. Of the one-third of academically ready for college 12th graders that come from low-income families, nearly 30% are racial minorities. Like fast track implementation, our debt swap idea is similarly low cost and has been supported by both Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and the Congressional Black Caucus. In fact as per government accounting rules, it would generate revenue (i.e. savings) for the federal budget, because the government makes money on student loans.

Cons: The fast track idea is complex and despite being voluntary conflicts with traditional notions and fond memories of high school senior year. Although states like Florida have done it successfully, colleges will hate the idea of guaranteed introductory course credit transfer and fight it on academic freedom and quality grounds. Extension of bankruptcy protection seems unfair to those who repaid and a downer for those who didn’t; the latter group wants all student debt wiped away.

Want to learn more about these ideas? Check out this report we did with the Alliance for Excellent Education on Fast Track.

Not aggressive enough for you? Well, then consider —

Bold Proposals

Idea #3: Pair a debt-free public college proposal covering all postsecondary education expenses (tuition, fees, room, board, etc..) for students who work or serve no more than 10 hours a week, inclusive of summers and current paid and volunteer work with: (i) direct aid to public institutions of higher education to upgrade academic programs, including developmental (i.e. remedial) education, in exchange for schools guaranteeing full course availability for on-time graduation; (ii) direct aid to community-based organizations working in partnership with either public high schools or community colleges in supporting on-time college completion; and (iii) a state maintenance of effort to guard against supplanting and erosion in state support for public higher education.

Idea #4: Debt relief for victims of predatory lending by the federal government and those with low-earnings. Wipe clean: (i) all federal student loan debt of anyone who attended a high-risk for-profit, non-profit, or public postsecondary institution fueled by federal loan assumption; and (ii) up to $5,000 in student loan debt of others who are low-income earners regardless of where they attended college. Moral hazard addressed through resuscitated Obama administration for-profit gainful employment and other consumer protection regulations extended to non-profit private and public institutions as well as for-profit trade schools.

Pros: Extension of debt-free college to four-year schools, total cost of attendance, institution support, guarantee course availability, and community-based organization partnerships all are likely to boost on-time graduation rates and reduce costs to students and families. The general debt-free college idea polls well among primary voters and better with general election voters when coupled with a personal responsibility element. Debt relief acknowledges past federal government action as predatory lender and focuses on those most likely to default. Approximately half of all student loan defaulters owe less $5,000.

Cons: Expensive at $20 billion a year. Governors will very much dislike a state higher ed maintenance of effort. The debt relief plan requires identifying high risk colleges (e.g. college dropout factories) in the non-profit and public space. Minority serving institutions may object. Extension of Obama for-profit regulations to non-profit & public space expands opposition constituency to the effort.

Want to learn more? Check out this report we did laying out a comprehensive college affordability plan for Massachusetts complete with cost estimate.

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