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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz has a big idea. He wants to eliminate student debt for any one who needs a loan to attend a public college or university.
Schatz introduced his debt-free college plan last week with the support of several prominent members of the Senate, including Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. All four Democrats have been linked to potential presidential runs in 2020.
But while Schatz’s proposal is unlikely to gain any traction in a Republican-controlled Congress, it’s an issue that he hopes will become a Democratic Party mainstay well into the future.
“We’re at the point where it is not clear for every young person that the smartest economic decision is to pursue a four-year degree,” Schatz said in an interview with Civil Beat.
“It can’t be overstated how damaging that is to our country in the long run. It has always been smart to pursue your higher education. But because of the extraordinary debt that students are incurring some students can never get out from under it.”
Under Schatz’s plan, the federal government would match state appropriations to public two- and four-year institutions dollar-for-dollar in exchange for a promise to put that money toward reducing student debt.
The money would help schools provide need-based grants so students don’t have to get a loan to help pay for their education and other expenses.
“This is going to take time and we’re going to need a Democratic congress and a Democratic president.” — U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz
But Schatz’s proposal goes further than just reining in tuition. It aims to make all aspects of college life more affordable for students, from buying books to paying for meals and rent.
He estimates that if the bill becomes law that 10 states, including Hawaii, could be debt-free within the first year of implementation if state funding levels remain the same.
The total cost in the first year is estimated to be about $80 billion, which the senator acknowledges is a lot of money.
But he hopes those costs could be recouped by increasing access to higher education, which results in increased wages, more taxes for the federal government and less reliance on social safety nets.
Other provisions tucked away inside Schatz’s bill would expand the Pell Grant program to make undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children — the so-called DREAMers — eligible to receive federal assistance.
The bill would also repeal a provision in federal law that prevents students convicted of drug offenses from getting federal aid.
Student loan debt in the U.S. totals more than $1.4 trillion. That’s more than all credit card debt, and only second to what’s owed on mortgages.
Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said that much of that debt isn’t incurred individuals taking out massive loans to attend prestigious private schools, such as Stanford or Harvard.
Instead, he says the debt is incurred by working families whose wages have stagnated and who are making up for the cuts made by state legislatures to public institutions.
For example, the annual tuition and fees at the University of Hawaii Manoa increased by more than 60 percent from 2010 to 2017 for residents, from about $7,200 to $11,700.
The jump was even more severe for nonresidents, who saw their tuition go from just over $19,215 to nearly $33,800, which is a 75 percent increase.
But the cost jumps significantly when considering other expenses.
The university estimated that for the 2017-2018 school year those living at home the actual cost of attendance in closer to $20,000 over nine months. For resident students who decided to flee the nest the price was estimated to be closer to $30,000.
“This business of saddling people with debt significantly alters their life choices,” Nassirian said. ”We’re tying a boat anchor around their necks and telling them to swim.”
Matthew Chingos, education policy program director at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., said that Schatz’s plan seems to avoid the pitfalls of the so-called “free college” plans.
The problem with those proposals, Chingso said, is that they disproportionately benefit the wealthy because students from well-off families are more likely to be going to college in the first place.
“That’s just one of the unpleasant facts of the world,” Chingos said. “There are big disparities in educational outcomes based on the kind of family you grow up in. Kids from poor families are less likely to go to college. By making college free you’re going to disproportionately subsidize the people who grew up in affluence.”
Schatz’s plan is different in that it addresses the total cost of going to college, something Chingos described as a “big deal.”
But that doesn’t mean the senator’s plan won’t have its naysayers, he said.
Not everyone goes to college, so there are still larger questions about equity and whether the federal government should be paying for the living expenses of those who have the opportunity and the means to achieve a secondary education that will financially benefit them in the long run.
Private universities will likely push back against the plan as well, he said, unless there’s a way to include them in the program.
“That’s just one of the unpleasant facts of the world. There are big disparities in educational outcomes based on the kind of family you grow up in.” — Matthew Chingos
But really the biggest hurdles are political, Chingos said. Although Republicans also would like to see college debt dissipate, they might choose a different path of getting there, such as by forcing schools to spend their money more efficiently, he said.
There are also philosophical questions of whether the federal government should spend more on higher education or on defense and tax cuts.
And even if Democrats regain control in Washington, Chingos said, there’s the possibility that Schatz’s plan won’t take hold at the state level, especially in places where Republicans are in power.
He pointed to Medicaid expansion under President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act. Not all states opted in to the program because they didn’t like the law or the person who signed it.
One thing is certain, Chingos said. The discussion won’t stop anytime soon.
“This idea of free college went from something no one ever talked about to now it’s basically a requirement that if you want to run for office as a Democrat you have to support it whether you think it’s a good idea or not,” he said.
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