Washington Monthly - September/October 2016 - 79

to graduate on time, and that student loan defaults have reached record highs. And while Clinton's campaign language includes vague promises to hold colleges accountable for "improving completion rates and learning outcomes," it offers no details about how this will be done. Sticking a poorly designed free college guarantee on top of the existing dysfunctional voucher system is a bad idea. Instead, we should replace the entire existing system with something that will actually work. better way would be to take the money currently being spent on federal vouchers, loan subsidies, and tax credits, and use it to create a new, formula-driven federal grant program for states to subsidize higher education. Under this plan (recently proposed by New America, where I work), states would receive money based on the number and income level of low-income college students enrolled in their states. State agencies would then be responsible for giving that money to eligible colleges-but only if colleges agreed to charge students no more than their official Expected Family Contribution, or EFC. Millions of students receive this estimate every year when they fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). The EFC is a kind of official judgment of shared responsibility, a statement of how much families can afford to contribute toward the education their children need. The plan would make college affordable for every student at public, private, and for-profit colleges that opt in, which would mean a large net increase in federal funds to higher education. After replacing Pell Grants, loans, and tax credits with the new block grant, it would cost an additional $38.6 billion a year (because more students would receive aid)-in the neighborhood of the Clinton plan. To be eligible for these funds, states would have to maintain their current funding and match 25 percent of the new federal money, which would add an additional $17.9 billion a year to higher education. States would also be expected to hold colleges accountable for student outcomes related to learning, graduation, and employment, and they would be responsible for deciding which colleges could participate in the program. This would weed out the bad actors who currently profit from the voucher system. The plan would lower college costs for most students. Currently, almost 90 percent of families earning less than $30,000 per year are charged more for college than their EFC, compared with only 37 percent of families making more than $110,000. Colleges would also be required to enroll at least 25 percent low-income students, a bar 89 percent of colleges currently meet. Those that don't are mostly elite, wealthy schools that least need government support. States could, as with Clinton's plan, choose to opt out by not taking the new federal money. But they'd be less likely to do so because, unlike the Clinton plan, this plan eliminates Pell Grants and federal student loans. States that opt out would leave their students and colleges a without vital funding. The plan would empower states to customize their higher education systems. It would give governors more control over the millions of federal dollars that flow to higher education. And, unlike the Clinton plan, it wouldn't discriminate against private not-forprofit and for-profit colleges. These elements should appeal to conservatives worried about leaving room in the market for innovation and maintaining the federal-state balance of power. The plan also simplifies the federal investment in higher education. Instead of a multitude of federal programs to help pay for college-a system the Clinton plan would make even more complex-it would create a single program flow- Hillary Clinton was right to resist, for most of the campaign, the urge to jump on Sanders's free college bandwagon. Let's hope she can find a way to jump off, and get on board a plan that can actually deliver results for students. ing through states. The plan would communicate a simple message that should please progressives: no student will be expected to pay more for college than he or she can afford. At the same time, it will bring more accountability to the federal investment in higher education, ensuring that taxpayer dollars are spent responsibly. The plan is also progressive because it focuses the greatest resources on low-income students. In fact, nearly 80 percent of the funding would go to families earning under $48,000. The current financial aid system is complex and broken. Students are sold on a future they can't afford. The country deserves a complete rethinking to make colleges more affordable and accountable. What it doesn't deserve is for Washington to spend the next few years fruitlessly fighting over pragmatically challenged "free college" proposals. Hillary Clinton was right to resist, for most of the campaign, the urge to jump on Sanders's free college bandwagon. Let's hope she can find a way to jump off, and get on board a plan that can actually deliver results for students. Iris Palmer is a senior policy analyst with the Education Policy Program at New America. Washington Monthly 79

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