This Labor Day holiday marks not only the start of a new academic year for the nation’s colleges and universities but the stretch run in the 2016 presidential campaign, one in which the political discourse is polarized on issues such as immigration, national security and even national identity.
While the presidential campaign is like no other we have witnessed in our lifetime, filtering through the harsh rhetoric is some direction and clarity for those of us who still think a college education and a college-educated workforce are critical to our country’s future. While we are not naive, nor do we believe that a public university education should be completely free, there is a plan to address the dramatic rise in college tuition costs and the crushing debt too many students and their families incur.
As representatives of higher education leadership, we believe the plan put forward by Hillary Clinton will help graduates who need relief from the debt they currently carry and should be taken seriously.
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Student debt in this country has reached crisis levels and is now estimated to be $1.2 trillion. Nearly seven out of every 10 new graduates of four-year colleges are in debt and carry an average balance of nearly $30,000. This is bad not only for those graduates but also the economy. In fact, student debt has surpassed credit card, car loan and home equity lines of credit to be the second-largest source of consumer debt in this country.
So what is proposed? Graduates will be able to refinance their student loans just like borrowers can refinance other loans. They will also be able to enroll in income-based repayment so that the loan will be paid back, but at a rate and period that will work for them. And, they will be able to get relief for engaging in public service such as AmeriCorps as well as receiving credit for starting a business or social enterprise.
The plan also addresses the needs of current students and future graduates. Tuition has risen 40 percent at four-year public colleges and universities in the past 10 years, often shutting out students who are otherwise qualified. Under this plan, families earning less than $125,000 would be able to send their children to public colleges and universities tuition-free. Federal assistance would also be expanded to include year-round Pell Grant funding and the expectation that students would work part time as well. In addition, enhanced funding for minority-serving institutions would be available.
For the plan to work, however, there will have to be a commitment on the part of everyone involved. Federal investment will have to vastly increase, matched by states providing greater per-student support. Educational institutions will have to do all they can to rein in costs and streamline pathways for student success. This is part of the “New College Compact” that includes students, faculty and everyone doing their part.
In California we have already been moving forward on many of these ideas. But we need to do more. The system of higher education in California has been the model for the rest of the world. Unless there is a dramatic increase in federal and state investment, higher education in this state will be damaged irreparably.
Increasing the number of college graduates by millions is a national imperative and a public good. The Clinton plan recognizes that, and offers a possible path forward.
Roberta Achtenberg is Trustee Emerita and Chair Emerita of the California State University. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alex Gonzalez is President Emeritus and Professor Emeritus at California State University, Sacramento. Contact him at email@example.com.