College Affordability: Comparing the Clinton and Sanders Plans

Hillary Clinton recently came out with a plan to address the growing college affordability crisis in this country. She is to be commended for recognizing that student debt is crippling the financial future of younger generations - and some not so young. Her program would be a considerable improvement on the status quo.

That said, the Clinton plan does not go far enough, as it fails to place the issue of college affordability in the proper context: as a societal, rather than individual, problem.

Clinton's proposal would offer $17.5 billion per year in federal funds for states to reinvest in public higher education. It would consolidate Income-Based Repayment programs, strengthen regulatory oversight of student loans, simplify the loan application process and expand programs to help low-income, first-generation college students.

For those already burdened with student debt, it would allow them to refinance at "today's low interest rates" and eliminate profits for the federal government from the student loan program. It would cap loan payments to 10 percent of income and provide total forgiveness after 20 years.

These are all good things. Significant problems remain, however. Her plan promises "no loan" solutions to student debt, but families would still be required to pay tuition according to a formula that determines how much they can afford.

That's a problem. Many middle-class families today are living paycheck to paycheck and borrowing just to meet routine expenses. This would add another large budget item for already hard-pressed households, and despite the "no loan" label, increase debt burdens as families borrow against their house or on credit cards to pay tuition.

Students would be required to work 10 hours a week, which can be difficult for those carrying a heavy course load, especially if the work isn't related to their studies. Only lower-income students would be able to use their federal, needs-based financial aid to pay for living expenses.

We need to fundamentally reshape the way we think about public higher education. For a number of years, it was virtually free in many parts of this country. We understood the benefits of living in a society where every young person could go to college, regardless of their economic history. It is important that we return to that view.

In that regard, Clinton's "New College Compact" is something of a disappointment. Instead of placing college "within reach" of every qualified American, it should be available to all people, as a public good -- not contingent on individual family sacrifice, or student work requirements.

The Sanders plan, released last May, would make all public colleges and universities tuition-free. It would eliminate the federal "profit" from student debt and allow students to refinance at significantly lower rates. (Under current conditions the undergraduate student loan rate would drop from 4.29 percent to 2.37 percent.)

There would be no payment requirements for middle-class families, and no 10-hour work week to add on to a student's course load. Students would be able to use federal, state and institutional need-based aid to cover room and board, books and living expenses -- all major contributors to student debt. It would triple the size of the federal work-study program, and offer significant relief to current student debt holders.

Other nations have seen the wisdom of tuition-free public higher education, including Germany, Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland and Mexico. We understood the same thing in this country for much of the 20th century in states like California and New York.

The Clinton plan is a step in the right direction. But it's not debt free. The Sanders plan offers real solutions to the high costs of college tuition and student debt, and as such, real progress towards the building of a robust democracy.

A version of this post originally appeared on Democracy Daily, the online "news magazine" of the Bernie 2016 campaign.