Higher Education

Democrats want to open more doors to college, but can their plan get more students to the finish line?

Making college more affordable is a focus of the Democratic Party’s platform for this year’s convention, which marks a significant shift from the past. But what may be missing is a feasible plan to get more low-income students beyond simply enrolling, through to graduation.

The prominence of affordable college in the party’s platform is a result of concern over rising tuition costs and skyrocketing student debt, as well as an aggressive push from supporters of Hillary Clinton’s primary-campaign rival Bernie Sanders, who proposed free tuition at all state colleges.

The platform includes promises to support institutions that serve minority students, to promote cheaper loan repayment plans and more state funding for higher education, and to “go after” for-profit colleges that are deceptive. Most striking is the pledge to make community college free.

“It’s kind of a shocking change,” said Andrew Hanson, senior research analyst at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “It’s the first time they’ve included any sort of specificity on higher ed issues. It really does represent a big change from the past.”

Still, like most party platforms, it is short on details, and is more a set of priorities than an actual policy document.

Related: Republican platform for higher ed: Less red tape and less money

“What we’re seeing is the Democrats driving a conversation about what the federal government’s relationship to supporting higher education should be,” said Colin Seeberger, strategic campaigns advisor for the Young Invincibles, a non-profit advocacy group focused on issues that affect young adults. “It’s about whether the federal government should have a greater responsibility.”

Making community college free echoes President Obama’s proposal last year. But policy experts note that Federal Pell grants currently cover the average community college tuition in all but three states – South Dakota, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Also, the Pell program – which provides a maximum of $5,815 per year — allows students to keep whatever money is left over after tuition, which can help pay for books, transportation and other living expenses. That’s a big help for low-income students and can be significant in places like California, where average community college tuition is $1,423, and Texas, where it’s $2,361. If tuition were simply waived, students could lose out.

Advocates of free community college say the label itself encourages more low-income students to enroll. When Tennessee declared its community colleges free, enrollment increased.

Pell grants on average provide enough money to cover four-year public college tuition in only two places, Wyoming and Puerto Rico. Nine states charge tuition that on average is more than twice the maximum Pell grant, including Pennsylvania, Virginia, Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey.

Related: Outdated Pell rules may discriminate against low-income students

Clinton’s plan, crafted as a compromise with Sanders’ popular “free college” plan, goes further than the party’s platform. It promises free in-state tuition at all state colleges and universities for families making less than $125,000 a year (about 80 percent of Americans).

This proposal would have a much bigger impact on low-income students, only about a quarter of whom earn a bachelor’s degree within six years. Half of students who are older than 25 or don’t live with their families drop out after six years.

But tuition is only part of the problem. Tuition is a little more than one-third of the actual cost of attending most state colleges, according to federal data. Students, then, can be on the hook for up to an additional $15,000 after tuition – and that’s why student debt has been rising so fast.

Back in 1980, Pell grants covered 77 percent of the cost of attending a four-year public university, but by 2011 that had dropped to barely one-third of the cost, according to The Education Trust. Student debt now averages about $30,000 per student.

Students with children can be hit even harder, juggling work, child care costs and college. More than a quarter of all college students are raising kids. Single mothers comprise 43 percent of students raising children and single fathers 11 percent.

Clinton says that her proposal to expand funding for on-campus child care centers would open 250,000 new spots for children of college students. She’s also offering a maximum of $1,500 a year to up to one million students to defray transportation and child care costs.

But while federal funding can help make college affordable, policy experts argue that it cannot close the gap alone – states will have to pitch in. It’s not clear from the platform how the Democrats would or could implement their pledge to increase state funding for college. Most of the funding decisions – such as tuition rates and financial support for public colleges and universities – take place at the state level.

Related: Sanders’ free college plan would take from the rich and give to the rich

“States may react badly to the federal government telling them how much they have to spend,” said Preston Cooper, a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute.

One of Clinton’s proposals has drawn excitement from across the political spectrum. She wants to spend $10 billion in federal money to help students enroll in nontraditional post-high school programs, such as computer coding academies, open online courses and other vocational training programs.

“There is a sense that there are skills that employers want, and the question is who will do the training and should the public fund it,” said Hanson. “There is skepticism out there about for-profit colleges, but there’s also the sense that education should be connected to jobs and workforce development, and that idea is gaining ground.”

The Democrats’ higher education platform may indeed solidify, and even excite, their traditional base, but it’s unclear how much of it will become policy. Even if it does, it’s equally unclear whether it would increase the number of low-income Americans who earn college degrees.

The gap between tuition and the actual cost of college is something that parents and students quickly become aware of after a year or two of college. The extra financial burdens that many low-income aspiring college graduates carry can lead them to drop out, often with debt, and with no feasible pathway to a job that will allow them to pay back their loans. The platform does not make clear how the Democrats would address this all-too-common problem.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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Meredith Kolodner

Meredith Kolodner is a staff writer. She previously covered schools for the New York Daily News and was an editor at InsideSchools.org and for The… See Archive

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