Barring some sort of catastrophe, it now seems pretty clear that Hillary Clinton will be the 45th President of the United States. There is a reasonable chance (51.6% in Monday’s FiveThirtyEight forecast) that the Democrats could regain the Senate and an outside chance that they could also regain the House. Those odds probably change a bit in the Democrats’ favour once some post-grope polls come out later this week, but the basic outline of a post-November 7 world – Hillary in charge, with a split Congress – is now pretty clear. What does it mean for higher education?
Well, you wouldn’t know it from any of the debates – we’ve now gone 270 minutes without a single second being spent on education – but higher education is a major plank in Hillary’s platform. But her policies on higher education have evolved somewhat over the course of the campaign, mostly because her primary opponent Bernie Sanders’ success with millennials convinced her she needed a big, expensive, youth-oriented policy, and higher education (apparently) is it.
Hillary’s plan, release just prior to the July convention and known as “The New College Compact” consists of two pillars. The first involves creating a system of “free tuition” at public universities for students from families with under $125,000 by 2021 (it would start at $85,000 in 2017 and rise by $10K each year thereafter) . On the fact of it, this is a bit like what the Ontario Liberals and the Chilean socialists have developed, only more generous (i.e., using a higher cut-off point). But the costing on this plan is – to put it mildly – hazy. Her costing documents speak of spending $450 billion over ten years, but the tuition take from 4-year public alone is north of $55 billion, and that’s not including either the cost of 2-year colleges or the extra costs that would accrue if free tuition induced hundreds of thousands of students from private colleges to switch into the public system (the New America Foundation has correctly warned that not including funding for system growth could well result in a reduction of access for lower-income and minority students as middle-class students switching from privates could push out less-prepared lower-income kids from a fixed number of spaces).
The problem here is that the US (like Canada) is a federal system, with education a responsibility of the states. The federal government can promising anything it likes about tuition, but at the end of the day it is states who have the final say. The best the feds can do is work out a system of carrots and sticks to entice the states into a program. The wording of the plan seems to imply that states who want to get reduce tuition will sign up for grants from Washington in return for meeting certain conditions – one of them being pouring more money of their own into their systems. But the progress of Obamacare, which required considerably less from states but has only brough two-third of states on board so far, should give everyone pause. On top of that, of course, the President alone can’t appropriate funds unilaterally. Congress would need to be on-side as well, and the Democrats are still a long way from being able to make that happen. Which is why most higher education analysts in the US seem to assume that the plan is more talk than action: a rhetorical statement which can attract voters rather than a plan likely to be implemented.
The second part of the Clinton plan involves a three-month moratorium on student loan repayment allowing all borrowers – including those in repayment – to re-finance their loans at a lower rate. There is a fair amount of scepticism about how effective this measure might be. As Robert Kelchen of Seton Hall University (possibly the shrewdest US student loans pundit out there), wrote in The Conversation a couple of months ago, the most-indebted graduates tend not to be the ones with the high default rates because default is most commonly associated with dropouts and hence lower levels of debt, and also because over 40% of borrowers in the US are now in income-based plans and so changing the level of interest will have minimal effects on repayments. In other words, it will be a big income transfer to younger Americans, but not necessarily one that will do much to increase access or reduce defaults.
So after the election, what we can probably expect is a situation quite similar to what we had prior to 2014: a President and a Senate with a desire to make college more affordable (though not necessarily in particularly efficient ways), with a House implacably opposed and states offering indifferent support. But a catastrophic Republican result in the House – which remains a possibility following this weekend’s stampede of defections – might result in some very rapid and drastic policy changes from the new administration.
Stay tuned for November 8th.