Hillary Taking Charge in Postsecondary Education

By Watson Scott SwailPresident & Senior Research Scholar, Educational Policy Institute

She’s already starting to look presidential. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic frontrunner and the candidate that many observers now feel has a lock on the presidency (not necessary a good indicator this far out from the election), is putting real issues on the table while the other Democrat and Republican candidates are still getting their collective “acts” together.

Last month Clinton unveiled her health care plan, a carefully-negotiated piece that stands a much better chance of acceptance than her aborted (no pun) attempt back in 1993. Yesterday, as reported in InsideHigherEd.org, Candidate Clinton unveiled her plan for postsecondary education. Many of the provisions aren’t politically viable, but she put enough on the table to suggest that (a) she knows what she is talking about; (b) she has carefully canvassed people in preparation of this plan. Let’s take a look, piece-by-piece:

Upgrading the Hope Tax Credit. In 1997, President Clinton signed the Taxpayer Relief Act of 1997. Candidate Clinton plans to double the credit to $3,500 and also make a portion of the credit “refundable.” This was a key provision that was lacking in the original legislation, because it wouldn’t have passed if that stipulation was put into the language. It probably won’t pass this time, either. When it becomes refundable, people with little or no tax liability actually get money from the government. This smells too much like “entitlement” for Republicans and perhaps even Democrat centrists to pass. Still, the way Clinton has packaged the new credit is interesting at a minimum.

Pegging the Pell Grant to college prices. In theory, this is a good idea, but again, does not have political viability. Republicans are not likely to support making the Pell Grant an entitlement that will grow exponentially. Also, there are enough naysayers that will suggest that Pell will cause further tuition spiral. Would I like to see it? Yes. Will it happen? No.

Grants to community colleges to encourage college transfer. Not sure the details, but in theory a very positive idea. The future success of our postsecondary system hangs on two-year institutions. They need to be better vehicles for upward mobility in the US. Any focus on that will be welcomed.

The Graduation Fund. Clinton has proposed an incentive fund for four-year colleges who undertake “performance-based efforts to improve their graduation rates, especially among low-income and minority students.” If they can define how the “performance-based efforts” will be measured, this sounds like a winner. The problem now is that everything is based on cohort graduation rates, an imprecise and imprudent measure, at best, of institutional effectiveness and “equity.”

Simplifying the Financial Aid Process. Clinton has suggested that a box be put on the 1040 tax form that would automate the financial aid process. This sounds promising, but I’m not convinced that the tax form has enough information for financial aid calculations and whether this simplifies the process for all tax payers. As stated on Clinton’s website, “The 1040EZ has one-third of the FAFSA’s questions and one fifth of its pages.” Well, we may need the other two-thirds of questions for appropriate asset calculations.

Expand College Information. Clinton proposes publishing, through ED, information not only on graduation rates (which is already available), but data on employment following college at institutions and earnings in the field. This will be further burden on institutions, but a really neat idea.

Multi-Year Tuition Rates. This proposal would require institutions to “set multi-year tuition and fee levels for each cohort of students at the beginning of each student’s freshman year, so students and families will have a sense of how much their costs will be in the coming years.” We’re not sure what this means, exactly. Does it mean that institutions must flat-line tuition rates during the college years for a student, such that if tuition is $6,000 during the freshman year, it is $6,000 during their senior year, or does it simply mean that the institution agrees on future tuition levels at the outset (e.g., freshman = $6,000; sophomore = $6,300, etc.) so that the student knows how much it will cost, in absolute terms. The later would make more sense, as flat-lining is actually a decrease over time, with inflation adjusted. Institutions will either have a problem with that or will game it such that they end up raising tuition at the outset to adjust for losing fees over time.

There are other proposals in her plan, too. As stated, some of these are “starters” and some are not. But Clinton must be given credit: she’s put her ideas on the table for all to see, and each of these ideas is viable to some degree and worthy of discussion. It will now be interesting to see how the other candidates–from both parties–react to her proposal.

To be clear, I don’t write this as an endorsement of Hillary Clinton. We’re a non-partisan organization that works diligently to enforce that policy. And for sure, Clinton is a lightning rod in this political race. People love her or hate her, it seems. Most Republicans loath her existence and many Democrats worry that she will pull out the right wing vote and be “unelectable.” But that sense is beginning to fade. Just as the adage that the person who brings the agenda to the meeting leads the meeting, Clinton is setting the agenda by beating the other candidates with concrete proposals rather than mushy political-speak.

Stay tuned. We only have another 13 months before the election…

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