Hillary Clinton’s College Reform Plan, Blah

After several months of speculation, Hillary Clinton has finally revealed her plan for reforming higher education. Less ambitious than Bernie Sanders’s proposed “free public college for all” policy, the Hillary plan is at least intriguing for the country’s mainstream Democrats.

And that’s probably because, well, it’s standard Democratic education policy boilerplate.

According to a piece in the Washington Post by Danielle Douglas-Gabriel and Anne Gearan:

At the heart of the plan, dubbed the New College Compact, is an incentive program that would provide money to states that guarantee “no-loan” tuition at four-year public universities and community colleges. States that enroll a high number of low- and middle-income students would receive more money, as would those that work with schools to reduce living expenses. Because Pell grants, a form of federal aid for students from families making less than $60,000, are not included in the no-debt calculation, Clinton anticipates lower income students could use that money to cover books, as well as room and board.

The Clinton campaign estimates that the plan will cost about $350 billion, which she plans to fund by closing tax loopholes. And what will it buy?

The $350 billion would cover all facets of the far-reaching proposal over 10 years. More than half of the total would be used to increase state investment in higher education, a third would cover the cost of lowering the interest rates on student loans and the rest would support the other initiatives.

This isn’t a terrible plan, but it wouldn’t do much to address what’s caused college to become so expensive.

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Interested readers can check out the plan here.

Basically the way it would work is that under the plan state college systems would get more money from the federal government if they pledge to invest more in higher education. This is interesting, but it doesn’t have much to do with what students have to pay for education, nor does it set a limit on the dollar amount students or their parents have to pay, aside from vague statements about how no one “should” have to take on debt to attend public college.

Providing more money for higher education wouldn’t address real costs. While it’s true state universities are getting less and less of their total budget from the federal government, states are not actually “slashing” higher education budgets. Adjusted for inflation, they’re spending more than they did even in the 1960s, it’s just not covering as much of the total cost.

Part of the reason for is the much-discussed climbing-walls-and-fancy-dorms development in campus planning–colleges look a lot fancier than they used to–but a lot of this is just that health care and retired employees eat up a lot more of total college budgets now, because those things are very expensive.

MSNBC writes glowingly about the plan, wondering only if “Congress will let her.” We have no idea at this point. We don’t know who will be in Congress or what priorities the leadership will have. But the important question might be if it would matter if Clinton got her way.

Obviously policy making is a matter of compromise and making deals. But that’s why the initial proposal matters so much. The bigger the campaign promise, the more we can expect a big policy change. This is not a bad idea, sure, but the situation is perhaps bigger than can be addressed by just following standard the standard Democratic Party ideas for higher education: more federal money, more loan refinancing options, and more flexibility for Pell grant recipients. That probably can’t fix the major problem here, which is that college has just become too expensive, for students, for parents, and, it appears, for states themselves.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer