By Robert G. Duffett
Hillary Clinton recently unveiled her New College Compact. The goal is college affordability by ensuring free tuition at four-year public colleges for every student from families earning $85,000 a year or less. The family income cap would rise to $125,000 by the year 2021.
The compact would primarily be funded by the federal government through "new money" appropriations from yet unidentified tax-benefit limitations on high-income taxpayers. State governments, universities, and parents would also be required to contribute.
I have one suggestion to improve the compact. Why limit students' choice to only four-year public universities? Why not follow the tried and true, highly successful precedents of Pell Grants and the G.I. Bill?
Since World War II the G.I. Bill - and later, Pell Grants - encouraged qualified students to attend the college of their choice, whether it be public or private. The grant followed the student. The programs did not prescribe what college sector or which college a student must attend to receive the benefit.
Private colleges could do their part by matching the federal grant dollar for dollar up to the full cost of tuition. True, students might not graduate debt-free from a private university, but this federal/private grant match would dramatically cut student loan debt while preserving educational choice.
Data on the value of a private college undergraduate degree is clear and compelling. Private colleges have a long-standing commitment to the public good - at little cost to both the state and federal government. Most are not bastions of economic and social privilege. Racial and ethnic student diversity among private colleges in Pennsylvania is comparable to student-body diversity at public four-year colleges in our state. Students at private colleges are more likely to graduate in four years compared with their peers at a state institution - which is a tremendous cost savings for students and their parents. Also, minority students graduate in four years at substantially higher rates among Pennsylvania independent colleges than at state schools.
Although independent colleges receive little federal or state appropriations, they have extensive experience with federal and state governments with federal student loans, Pell Grants, and G.I. Bill recipients. They would need no training to participate in the New College Compact if the grant would follow students to the school of their choice.
I commend the Clinton campaign for proposing an investment in America's youth. History attests that benefactors throughout their lives will more than pay back program costs to federal and state treasuries. How? Federal and state tax revenue will mushroom due to better-paying jobs, courtesy of a college degree from this program. Simply put, an amended New College Compact that includes student choice of institution would be good for America's economic future and human capital development. Consider these almost indisputable facts:
Most future jobs will require post-secondary education.
America is falling behind peer countries in four-year college degree completion.
A four-year college degree substantially increases lifetime earnings (and tax revenue as well). Research from the Pew Research Center on Demographic Trends suggests that young college graduates (24-32 year olds) outpace their high school graduate peers in virtually every measure of economic well-being and career attainment. Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce research indicates that college graduates may expect to make at least a million dollars more in lifetime earnings than high school graduates.
Some time ago, Clinton wrote a best-selling book titled It Takes a Village, which made the point that raising children is a communal endeavor and responsibility. With that thought in mind, perhaps the best way to meet the higher education needs of American students is to mobilize the entire higher education "village."
Including private universities would strengthen the New College Compact. We, as a nation, are always "stronger together."