Clinton's free tuition plan deserves a robust debate | Editorial

By Star-Ledger Editorial Board
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on August 01, 2016

 

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Belated congratulations to each member of the Class of 2016: You are the most indebted students in history, with an average burden of $37,173 in loans to pay, or $60 billion as a class en masse.

Now go out there and grab that brass ring. Plastics.

That debt is $2,000 more than it was in 2015. It's $15,000 more than it was a decade ago, and about $23,000 more than it was just 20 years ago.

The main reason it has soared is that the cost of public education has shifted from taxpayers to individual students. Today, 45 states spend less per student than they did before the recession, with the average cut being 17 percent, or $1,525 per person. In New Jersey, state support for four-year publics has dropped 23.2 percent since 2008, or $2,281 per student.

And these cutbacks have blown massive holes in university budgets, leading to an average tuition hike of 33 percent since 2008.

That makes the college affordability plan proposed by Hillary Clinton essential to the policy debate, because the soaring tuition trend is unsustainable.

Sure, this free-for-most tuition model is characterized as a ruthless grab for wayward Bernie Sanders devotees, but at least Clinton made the wise decision to go where her party is clearly moving.

And any political motivation is irrelevant to this crisis, unless you think it's healthy for young people to owe $1.2 trillion (that's the existing total debt) before they have entered the workforce.

Dr. Susan Cole, the president at Montclair State, put it best: Affordable education for all "is fundamental to the best principles of our democracy, which rest on providing the nation's people with a level field of opportunity. And the most important opportunity is education."

Since states aren't paying their share, it's time for the federal government to fund higher ed, just as they do from Argentina to Turkey.

Clinton's model follows the Sanders funding plan that limits certain tax expenditures for the wealthiest taxpayers. It includes a matching program not unlike Medicaid expansion: Washington would shoulder some costs through grants to states, and states would kick in their own money and lower tuition at public colleges to zero for students from families making $85,000 or less. By 2021, that threshold rises to $125,000.

It has other smart provisions, such as students being required to work 10 hours per week, and states lowering their absurdly inflated administrative costs.

Maybe some states will refuse to comply, but it won't be long before their residents recognize the incentives to move to a smarter state. And while some argue this limits "choice," no kid "chooses" to be $37,000 in debt; and nothing stops richer families from sending their kids wherever they choose.

There are questions related to containing the estimated $350- to $450-billion cost over 10 years, and Clinton needs to explain how she will prevent colleges from raising tuition, which has been known to happen when the government expands tuition subsidies.

But this investment in our future cannot be some quixotic campaign gimmick. It's been 100 years since we've made high school compulsory, and the result was The American Century - economic and technological advances that changed the world, because we had families that could be supported with jobs that high school educations would provide.

That system is no longer adequate, and higher education is no longer optional. Most educators assert that a college education in this century is as critical as a K-to-12 education in the last. But while education is catalytic, it's also expensive. The only thing more expensive is ignorance.

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