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Trump and Clinton offer tuition relief, but is it really needed?

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During Monday's presidential debate, the cost of college tuition was mentioned only in passing by Hillary Clinton. The Democratic nominee repeated her campaign trail message calling, saying there should be "debt free college." Clinton elaborated on her remarks Wednesday at a rally in New Hampshire, flanked by Senator Bernie Sanders, who called her plan, "revolutionary" and, "enormously important for the future of our country."

Though Trump did not comment on college or tuition during the debate, the Republican nominee did address the issue briefly last Thursday at a rally in Pennsylvania, saying: "We have to break the cycle… if universities want access to all of these special tax breaks, and tax dollars that are paid for by you, then they are going to make good faith efforts to reduce the cost of college and student debt and to spend their endowments on students, rather than other things that don't matter."

Both candidates promise to lower tuition costs, but not much is known about either of their plans. Their statements present more questions than answers: Will the cost of college truly be free? How will this be accomplished? And is the problem of debt and tuition truly a huge problem? Or have enormous sticker prices and convenient campaign sound bites blurred the main issue?

EXPERT WEIGHS IN

Jason Delisle, a resident fellow who focuses on higher education financing and student loan programs at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), says this emphasis on student debt and rising tuition is a mistake. He took issue with Trump's remarks in Pennsylvania that "students are choking on those [federal] loans." Delisle says that "the students that have the most trouble repaying loans are the ones who have the least debt," which researchers suspect is due to their not having finished school yet. "We can't assume that the student debt problem is students with hundreds of thousands in loans and debt." He takes issue with Trump's assessment of the situation, saying that it is a waste of time to focus on endowments and tax status.

On the other hand, "Clinton already has a lot of caveats and fine print in her proposal, even though there are few details," says Delisle, citing that the requirement for students to work in order to get tuition for free. Clinton proposes that families making $85,000 or less will go to in-state four-year colleges for free, a program that is to expand by 2021 to include families making $125,000 or less. And at Wednesday's New Hampshire rally, Clinton also promised to give students a reprieve from high interest rates and immense student loans.

"The more we learn about this plan, the less free it will look. I'm not saying that makes it better or worse, I'm just saying that this isn't quite what people are expecting," says Delisle.

Since 2010-11, the average cost of tuition at a public four-year college rose by 13 percent, and tuition fees at public four-year colleges for the 2015-16 year average $9,410. With room and board factored in, that number rises to $19,548. Delisle says once you factor in all the student aid received, "the median tuition paid for a public four-year college after all aid is $2,500… the tuition increases are not as large as people say. They focus on sticker-prices and very elite schools. If you look at the net prices that people are actually paying after they get their student aid, then those prices are not that high."

For the most part, colleges have responded to cuts in federal and state subsidies by raising tuition for "upper income families," says Delisle. Under this framework, upper income families would include those who make above $100,000, although the Pew Research Center includes as middle-income anyone who makes from $42,000 to $125,000 per year, a definition that Clinton also uses.

THE MAIN ISSUE

The main problem connected to student debt comes from the fact that essentially any student accepted to any school can get a hefty federal-backed loan. According to the New York Federal Reserve, student debt rose 24% since 2012. Delisle suggests that banks should be more discriminating in which students they give loans to, to ensure that they will be able to pay them back.

To alleviate concerns and take the focus away from the sticker price, Delisle suggests that something be developed to show families what they can expect to pay. Net price calculators are often available online, but colleges are not held to the price that they quote there, unlike with vouchers provided to low-income families.

"Universities charge students of different incomes very different prices. There is a lot of price discrimination," says Delisle. Vouchers provided to low-income families have proven helpful because they allow families to easily compare what they will pay to the sticker price.

The issue of college tuition and endowments is in the Congressional pipeline, with hearings scheduled for later this fall. Trump also mentioned that he would "work with Congress on reforms." However, Delisle is not optimistic about the outcome, citing the 2008 hearings which had little practical effect.