Hillary Clinton hits the right notes with college affordability plan

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton answered questions after announcing her college affordability plan at a high school in Exeter, N.H.
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton answered questions after announcing her college affordability plan at a high school in Exeter, N.H. The Associated Press

College affordability — or lack thereof — is on many people’s minds these days. The pervasive concern over rising costs and mounting student debt now has percolated into the 2016 presidential campaign in a big way.

Democratic and Republican candidates alike have addressed the issue and brought forward policy recommendations either to slow the increase in tuition and other costs or to shave the price of borrowing for higher education.

This worked to Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton’s advantage when she announced her own comprehensive prescription on Monday: She had many proposals to steal from, and she did so with liberal abandon.

Don’t take that as a criticism. Clinton’s $350 billion plan borrows some of the best ideas from both the left and the right. Whether a President Hillary Clinton could deliver the plan without a Democratic Congress — or even with one — is an open question, but she is certainly promoting some worthwhile ideas.

On the right, Clinton’s plan would encourage more innovation and accountability on the part of colleges and universities to raise graduation rates and hold them liable for a portion of student loan defaults.

On the left, she would increase federal spending in the form of grants to the states designed to significantly lower tuition at public universities. Colleges would only qualify for the money if they set tuition rates low enough for students to afford them without borrowing money.

Clinton isn’t going as far as Democratic rivals Bernie Sanders, who has proposed making tuition to four-year public colleges free, and Martin O’Malley, who’d like to ensure students have the ability to get out of college debt-free, but she has offered her own interpretation of a common theme.

College affordability hasn’t made much of a blip on the GOP campaign radar yet, but it should.

This is a discussion the nation needs to have. Total student debt in the United States has climbed above the $1 trillion mark, and millions are defaulting on their loans.

The worry is not just that students will face crushing burdens when they graduate (if they graduate), but that many young Americans will simply find themselves priced out of college altogether.

Many of the candidates’ proposals get to the heart of the problem: a serious decline in per-student spending on higher education by the states. Spending cuts made during the height of the Great Recession have yet to be restored. Those cuts have been passed onto students in the form of higher tuition, even as too many colleges and universities have greatly increased reliance on low-paid part-time professors.

Combine that with growing economic uncertainty that has many students questioning the value of a college degree, and it becomes clear that the nation has some serious higher education issues to work through.

A presidential campaign — especially sprawling primaries with dozens of candidates — may not provide the best forum for such an important conversation. But the mere fact that candidates feel compelled to discuss the issue so early in the campaign is a promising sign.

If all of the candidates can agree we need to do something to make college more affordable again, perhaps a solution is within reach.