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a parapet from which to fend off the hordes trying to destroy public higher education. King has been making his arguments for twenty years, but until recently Democrats were more focused on expanding the direct student aid program to help poor and middle-class students by increasing Pell Grants and middle-class tax credits, and creating generous repayment plans for student loans. But as student loan debt has risen and governors like Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker in Wisconsin cut higher education budgets, Democrats are increasingly realizing that their unquestioning advocacy of federal direct aid has allowed states to play Washington for a sucker. That's why they chose King Alexander as their witness. While Congress is unlikely to reauthorize the Higher Education Act this year, the hearing served as a window on the evolution of Democratic thinking in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election. President Obama took the first step in proposing "free community college," earlier this year, which included a maintenance of effort provision, and prominent liberal voices like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have proposed "debt-free college." (Hillary Clinton has also indicated that she's interested in the idea.) Lift the hood on Sanders's plan and you realize it could more accurately be called "free tuition at public universities," because private colleges aren't eligible for the $47 billion in federal money he's proposing to offset tuition. Sanders's plan also includes, sure enough, a provision that states maintain a set level of higher education funding. 56 September/October 2015 Democrats are slowly coming around to the idea that the only way debt-free college is possible, from a cost perspective, is by limiting it to public schools and forcing the states to chip in money. In the hearing, King outlined his vision for how this could work. States have been cutting budgets and increasing tuition at public universities faster than Congress can authorize Pell Grant increases. The federal government spent $67 billion on grants and tax credits in 2014 (King also includes loans, but their cost is more complicated to estimate). King told the senators to just take $10 billion out of the direct aid program and use that money to create a matching program for states-states that fund their public institutions at high levels get a reward in federal dollars, and lose their match if they go below a certain amount. Taking money out of the direct student aid program is still sacrilege for most Democrats-Sanders proposed paying for his plan with a "Robin Hood tax" on Wall Street while keeping the direct aid program in place. But the idea of bolstering public higher education without raising federal taxes is appealing, and as Democrats continue down the path toward debt-free college, they will find King Alexander showing them the way forward, intent on undoing the mistakes of the past. Alexander Holt is a policy analyst with the Education Policy Program at New America. http://www.tamiu.edu http://www.tamiu.edu

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Washington Monthly - September/October 2015

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