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Inside Hillary Clinton’s Big New College Proposal

Image: U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes a question from the audience during a campaign town hall meeting in Exeter

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton takes a question from the audience during a campaign town hall meeting in Exeter, New Hampshire August 10, 2015. Clinton spoke about her plans to make college more affordable. REUTERS/Brian Snyder BRIAN SNYDER / Reuters

Hillary Clinton on Monday unveiled her plan to ensure any American student can go to a public college and pay for tuition without incurring any student debt, one of the most expansive ideas so far from her campaign and one that would in effect create a new education entitlement.

“I believe one of the single biggest ways we can raise incomes is by making college affordable and available to every American,” the Democratic frontrunner wrote in a post on Medium explaining the proposal.

"Under my plan, tuition will be affordable for every family," she added. "Students should never have to take out a loan to pay for tuition at their state’s public university.”

Clinton is proposing to send billions of dollars to states to fund their public colleges as long as they agree to a series of steps that would keep tuition low. In participating states, a student’s parents would still be required to contribute some amount of money (dependent on the family’s income) and the student would be expected to work 10 hours a week to help pay for school. Students would also pay for books, housing and other expenses, so Clinton’s proposal falls short of the universal “debt-free” college proposed by many liberal advocates.

Still, the rest of students' tuition would be state-funded, thereby eliminating the need to take out loans for tuition itself. And under this system, the millions of students who receive Pell Grants could use them to offset some non-tuition expenses, so that bloc of students could graduate with little out-of-pocket college cost and no debt.

Clinton’s plan is unlikely to become law in this form, as many of its details are vague and both Republicans in Congress and officials from both parties would likely press for changes before it was enacted.

But Clinton has now made one of the biggest promises of her campaign, and Democrats will press her to deliver on it if elected.

Some conservatives are already casting the plan as “Obamacare for higher education." Clinton is calling for the creation of a low-cost higher education option, in the same way Barack Obama promised in his 2008 campaign that most Americans would have the ability to buy an affordable health insurance plan.

“It represents a new guarantee of something that we should be investing in as a country,” said Mark Huelsman, a policy analyst at the progressive think tank Demos, which consulted with the Clinton campaign on the plan. “You don’t have to borrow for tuition and fees and that is a big thing.”

Douglas Holtz-Eakin, president of the conservative American Action Forum, said, “It will be Obamacare for higher education. All that is missing is the individual mandate.”

The reduced tuition is only one part of a three-plank proposal Clinton announced on Monday in New Hampshire. She also called for a provision that would make it cheaper for Americans who already have student loans to refinance them at lower rates, and she's pushing an innovation fund that will look for ways to improve America’s higher education system.

The proposal would cost about $350 billion over 10 years, which the former secretary of state’s campaign said would be funded through tax increases on the wealthy. And it would require the participation of states, who will be expected to increase funding for public colleges.

Republican governors, particularly in red states, may be wary of the additional spending as well as the potential repercussions of participating in a program authored by Clinton.

The former first lady’s decision to opt for a broad higher education plan is not a surprise, as the Democratic Party is increasingly focused on expanding access to college and using state and federal dollars to try to make it cheaper. President Obama proposed in his State of the Union address earlier this year to make community college free, an idea Clinton has also embraced.

A liberal activist group called the Progressive Change Campaign Committee spent much this year on a "big ideas" project, looking for concepts that would represent both fundamental changes to policy but also ones that could galvanize the electorate after the drubbing Democrats took in the midterm elections in November. Polling by the Progressive Change Institute, PCCC’s sister group, showed debt-free college had support among both Democrats and Republicans and could motivate people who might not have voted in 2014.

Earlier this year, PCCC convinced a number of Democratic lawmakers, including Massachusetts Sen Elizabeth Warren and New York’s Charles Schumer, to sign to a congressional resolution calling for debt-free college. Looking to appeal to liberals, Sanders and Martin O'Malley, another Democratic presidential candidate, then released their own plans to make college as low-cost as possible. The debt-free concept also drew the attention of Clinton campaign officials, who reached out to Green even before her campaign's launch.

Clinton's final proposal is very similar to the plan outlined earlier this year by PCCC and Demos, particularly its emphasis on sending more money to states.

“"Hillary Clinton's plan is very big and ambitious -- leading to debt-free college and increased economic opportunity for millions of Americans,” said Adam Green, the co-chair of PCCC. “The center of gravity on higher education has shifted from tinkering with interest rates to making college debt free -- and Clinton's bold proposal is emblematic of the rising economic populist tide in American politics."

The idea of debt-free college is new, but reflects the growing cost of higher education, which both parties have identified as a problem. According to the College Board, about 59 percent of students who graduate from public colleges borrow money, at an average of $25,600 per graduate. At private schools, which are not covered by Clinton’s plans, 64 percent of students graduate with debt, at an average of more than $31,000.

Conservatives argue that higher education, like health care, needs to reformed to bring costs down, and they are wary of plans like Clinton’s, which pump more money into America’s existing educational system. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, two of the leading GOP presidential candidates, are particularly vocal advocates of reforms that reduce cost through expanded use of computer-based learning. Both have also promoted the creation of credentials outside of the traditional four-year college degree so students can get jobs without spending as much time in school.

“The problem we have today isn't just that college is too expensive, it's that college, our system, is outdated. We need a flexible system that allows people who have to work full time, like single mothers who are raising children and are working also need flexible ways to go back to school,” Rubio said in an interview on Fox, responding to Clinton’s plan.

He added, “We should be giving people degrees on the basis of what they know, not how many hours they sat in a classroom. I'm not saying we don't continue with traditional higher education, but we have to allow some competition to compete with traditional colleges. You know, online coursework, competency-based education. Some of this is already out there. And all that she's talking about is let's raise taxes and pour a bunch of money into a 20th century outdated model.”