This week Hillary Clinton released a big complicated campaign proposal she calls the New College Compact. It’s stuffed with ideas that have been brought up by other presidential candidates, both to the left and the right: free tuition (Bernie Sanders); debt-free college (Martin O’Malley); more affordable student loan repayment (Marco Rubio); and lowering costs overall (Jeb Bush).
One big takeaway from all this is that college affordability may have become the mainstream, crowdpleasing middle-class issue of the moment, like homeownership or Social Security or health care in previous eras. And when you read between the lines of Clinton’s plan, what emerges are a lot of shifts in how Americans perceive, and achieve, what is increasingly a requirement for prosperity: a college degree.
Here are some of those new realities.
Community college is more important than ever.
Two-year colleges enroll 40 percent of undergraduates in the United States. Clinton’s proposal would make public two-year colleges tuition-free. President Obama proposed the same at the start of the year. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a higher education scholar at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who was an architect of Obama’s proposal, suggests that this is all leading to a public guarantee of 14, rather than 12, years of free education.
Commuting — not living on campus — is the new normal.
Clinton’s proposal would hand out incentive grants to states that agree to guarantee “no-loan tuition” for public universities. But at public colleges on average, living expenses like room and board cost as much as tuition. So avoiding debt could lead to more and more students foregoing the classic tropes of campus life, from frat-house living to unlimited soft serve in the dining hall. Those perks may fall under the axe anyway: Under the New College Compact, the money would go only to institutions that agree to cut costs and apply the funds strictly to instruction, not to hot tubs and climbing walls.