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Clinton Unveils Plan to Eliminate College Debt

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At campaign stops in New Hampshire this week, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton will unveil a sweeping $350 billion higher education plan that would overhaul the student loan system with the ultimate goal of eliminating college debt.

The plan, officially titled the New College Impact, reflects several proposals gaining traction in Washington as Congress begins its process to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, including pushing states to invest more in higher education.

You can read Clinton's full plan here.

We've broken down some of the most important parts. The proposal would:

  • Simplify the federal student aid application, an idea that's been kicked around for years by both Republicans and Democrats;
  • Allow borrowers to refinance their student loans to take advantage of more competitive interest rates, the way homeowners can refinance their mortgages;
  • More than double the size of AmeriCorps, from 75,000 to 250,000, and beef up tuition benefits for the volunteers;
  • Make permanent the American Opportunity Tax Credit;
  • Continue Democrats' push to curb the bad actors in the for-profit college sector, including provisions that would prevent them from poaching veterans' GI benefits;
  • Force all higher education institutions to become more transparent about graduation rates and estimated earnings after graduation; and
  • Incentivize states that prevent students from incurring debt with additional federal funding.

According to a report from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think-tank, more than half of state governments (29 in total) decreased their funding to public institutions between 2008-2012. And when measured on a "per-student" basis, nearly all states (44 out of 50) decreased their support to public institutions during that same time frame.

The plan's hefty price-tag would be paid for over 10 years by eliminating tax breaks for the super-rich.

Clinton is also slated to put forth proposals for those often referred to as non-traditional students—think single parents or full-time workers—though they make up an increasing part of the higher education landscape.

Debt-free college is an idea that's quickly gained support among Democratic presidential hopefuls since President Barack Obama first floated the idea of free community college for all in his latest fiscal 2016 budget proposal.

And to be sure, Clinton is not the first Democratic candidate to roll out a detailed plan. 

Back in May, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., unveiled his College for All Act, a $70 billion federal-state risk sharing plan that would cover the cost of tuition at four-year public colleges and universities. Under the proposal, the federal government would cover two-thirds of the cost and state governments would cover the remaining one-third.

Former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley has also touted plans to make college debt-free for low- and middle-income students, though he's short on specifics.

But what about proposals for helping low-income and first-generation students prepare for and get into and through college? Clinton's plan doesn't seem to address the front-end of the process, or programs like TRIO and GEAR UP, which were designed for that purpose.

Clinton's higher education plan—and that of Sanders' for the matter—is also silent about teacher preparation, something that's getting a close look from lawmakers in both chambers.

My colleague, Stephen Sawchuk, has written at length about the current patchwork of loan assistance programs for teachers, which policy thank-tanks and the Government Accountability Office found are in dire need of revamping.

Across the aisle, GOP presidential candidates have been somewhat moot on the topic, though we're looking forward to some of them digging into the issue next week at an education-focused debate in New Hampshire.

In the meantime, they're already taking jabs at Clinton's plan.

"We don't need more top-down Washington solutions that will raise the cost of college even further and shift the burden to hardworking taxpayers," said former Florida governor Jeb Bush in a statement. "We need to change the incentives for colleges with fresh policies that result in more individualization and choices, drive down overall costs, and improve the value of a college degree, which will help lead to real, sustained four-percent economic growth."

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