Clinton unveils ambitious college affordability plan

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Hillary Clinton has made college affordability a centerpiece of her campaign for president, and on Aug. 10, she outlined the details of her ambitious plan to address the issue.

"I believe one of the single biggest ways we can raise incomes is by making college affordable and available to every American. So today, I'm laying out a plan to do just that," Clinton said of her $350 billion proposal, which she calls the New College Compact. The plan aims both to reduce current borrowers' massive debt burden and to ensure that college is much more affordable—and debt-free—for the next generation of students. She would pay for the plan by cutting tax deductions for the wealthiest Americans over the next 10 years.

Clinton's plan directly addresses two of the fundamental challenges that have made higher education more and more unattainable: state disinvestment (and the resulting growing reliance on exploited contingent faculty) and soaring student debt that has crippled the finances of students and their families, AFT President Randi Weingarten says. "These barriers have prevented many aspiring students from pursuing or completing college degrees. Hillary's New College Compact provides a systemic, sustainable vision that solves these challenges, and by so doing reasserts higher education as a public good and renews hope for millions of American families."

In tackling student debt, Clinton's plan would allow borrowers to refinance at current interest rates. This would help an estimated 25 million borrowers, who could save $2,000 over the life of their loans. The plan also would cut interest rates for future undergraduates and allow everyone to enroll in a simplified income-based repayment program.

The second and more sweeping part of the plan includes steps that students, families, colleges and universities, states and the federal government can take to make sure costs are not a barrier for any college student. Among the elements:

  • Grants to states that commit to ensuring no student should borrow for tuition and improved affordability for other college costs.
  • Tuition-free community college.
  • Support for private colleges, including institutions serving large numbers of minority students, working to improve affordability and student outcomes.
  • Permanently extend the American Opportunity Tax Credit, which provides up to $2,500 in tax relief for middle-class families.

The plan also would increase college enrollment by simplifying student financial aid and grant processes, boost support for programs that have helped raise graduation rates, invest in programs that provide career and lifelong learning, strengthen the GI Bill's education benefits, expand AmeriCorps, give colleges incentives to keep student debt low, and crack down on for-profit colleges that break the law.

The New College Compact has attracted praise from AFT higher education members and leaders. Says AFT Vice President Frederick Kowal, president of United University Professions in New York state: "For years, the AFT and our affiliates have been clamoring for a national solution to this national problem. Hillary's plan nails it. By incentivizing states to reinvest in their higher education institutions, the compact will reduce the financial burden on students—particularly students from disadvantaged communities—and increase investment in faculty and instruction."

Clinton's compact will make a huge difference for adjunct faculty, as well, says Anna Peak, a nontenure-track professor who teaches general education classes in the humanities at Temple University. Many of her students come from working-class families and hold full-time jobs in addition to meeting their academic obligations. "I have classrooms filled with students who are incredibly stressed," distracted by financial woes and worried about getting a high-paying job that will allow them to pay off their student loans, she says.

Peak herself understands perfectly. She has her own student debt: Each month, she makes an $895 payment, which is nearly a third of her $3,000 monthly paycheck. With Clinton's new policy in place, capping her payment at 10 percent of her salary, that payment would go down to $300.

AFT member Patrick Romain, an academic adviser at the State University of New York at Albany, also praised Clinton's plan for its impact on the students he works with. "I believe that Hillary Clinton is a strong advocate for public higher education and has a strong track record for fighting for an affordable high-quality college education for all. As an academic adviser serving students who are often educationally and economically underserved, I know firsthand that a college education is a necessity and the foundation of economic and social success. Hillary Clinton is a strong public higher education advocate, and so we know that she will provide the opportunity to those who really deserve the opportunity."

Watch a video about the proposal featuring people who would benefit, including New York City teacher and AFT member Denise Verde.

[Dan Gursky, Virginia Myers, AFT media affairs]