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, crowd-pleasing 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 thing 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 ax 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.
Some public institutions are getting less public.
Tuition makes up nearly half of the revenue that public colleges are collecting these days, a proportion that is growing. Reversing that trend will not be easy.
The thrust of Clinton's plan addresses the public institutions that 80 percent of students attend. Earlier this year, I spoke with the president of one of those institutions, F. King Alexander of Louisiana State University.
"We need federal leverage and incentives to keep states in the public higher education business," he told me. "If we do not utilize federal leverage, if the trends continue as is, states will stop spending a penny on higher education." He calls Clinton's plan "innovative and highly needed." He met with Clinton's team about a week ago and advocated for the federal government to do exactly what her plan calls for: provide grants to states contingent on their reinvesting in higher ed.
But "leverage" and "incentives" are not a mandate. States under budget pressure could say "no thanks" to Clinton's proposed incentive grants, and so could individual universities. "We'd be naive to think that everyone is on the same page with these goals," says Goldrick-Rab.
You'll definitely have a job while studying. 41 percent of full-time students are employed these days. A 10-hour-a-week job for students is part of the expected family contribution for federal financial aid under Clinton's plan.
Going back to college as a parent will be easier. More than a quarter of undergraduates — almost 5 million people — are raising kids of their own. Clinton's plan offers new federal grants to colleges and universities for investing in supports that have been shown to get more low-income and first-generation students across the finish line to graduation. One of the specific ideas mentioned in the plan is having on-campus, quality day care.
Paying back loans will get simpler (if not cheaper).
Clinton wants to make it seamless — even automatic — to enroll in income-based repayment. This is a program that limits student loan payments to a small percentage of income, and forgives the balance after 20 years.
As we've written, income-based repayment can reduce the burden of repayment and the risk of falling into default. But stretching out the payments may not be the best deal financially for everyone. You end up paying more interest over the life of the loan, and there currently is a large tax bill for graduates the year the balance is forgiven.
Short-term, online and other experimental approaches will be ever more prominent.
As we've covered extensively, there's a burgeoning sector of unaccredited, for-profit "boot camps" and online "coder schools" that promise to bridge the gap between education and employment and provide essential skills quickly. Clinton's plan seeks to make federal student-aid funds available to any program that can demonstrate results, whether or not it fits the traditional mold, and whether it's for undergraduates or lifelong learners.