The Democratic candidates for president are the only two major party candidates left who have laid out in any detail their plans for making college more affordable and reducing student debt.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders wants American students to be able to attend public colleges and universities tuition-free. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has a more targeted and multi-layered approach to college affordability and student debt reduction.
The question for both Democratic candidates is, do their approaches to college affordability help the students who need it most?
Students from economically disadvantaged families are less likely than their higher-income peers to enroll in college. But tearing down barriers to enrollment isn’t enough. Once enrolled, low-income students are less likely to stay in college and finish, meaning many leave college after investing substantial resources and taking out loans, never to see a return on that investment in the form of a degree.
In Maine, the college enrollment gap between lower- and higher-income families has grown in recent years. Only 48 percent of economically disadvantaged students who graduated from high school in 2014 had enrolled in college by the subsequent fall, according to research by the Mitchell Institute. Seventy-three percent of their higher-income peers did. And that 25-point gap was four percentage points larger than it was six years before with Maine’s 2008 high school graduates.
The state’s college persistence trend also is a discouraging trend. Of Maine college-going high school graduates from the class of 2012, 83.1 percent returned for their sophomore year — a drop from Maine’s 2007 peak of 84.7 percent, according to the Mitchell Institute.
While the persistence figures aren’t broken down by income level, more of those leaving likely come from lower-income families. One analysis using data from 2000 found that even academically gifted low-income students — those who scored at least 1200 on the SAT — were half as likely to finish college as their peers of similar academic talent at the top of the income scale.
So, what do low-income students need? It’s not as simple as free tuition for all.
To start, a free tuition program doesn’t target the resources where they’re most needed. An analysis by the Brookings Institution’s Matt Chingos concludes that students from the top half of the income distribution would see most of the benefit from Sanders’ free public college plan. Chingos estimates, based on annual tuition costs from 2011-12, that students from the top half of the income distribution would see $16.8 billion in benefits compared with $13.5 billion for students from the bottom half. Much of the discrepancy is because of the fact that higher-income students are less likely to attend lower-tuition institutions such as community colleges.
Covering the cost of tuition and fees doesn’t cover another major cost center that poses more of a burden on low-income students: living expenses. On his website, Sanders pledges to require that public universities meet 100 percent of the financial need of their lowest-income students and expand work study opportunities.
Clinton offers more detail and an approach targeted to low- and middle-income students. Her college affordability program would rely on grants to states that pledge to ensure that no student attending a public, four-year college or university has to borrow money to cover tuition. Pell grants — a primary source of federal aid available to low-income students — wouldn’t factor into the calculation of a student’s ability to pay tuition, meaning a low-income student could instead apply that aid to defray living expenses. The Clinton plan is designed to target more resources to lower- and middle-income students than to students at the top.
Research on student retention points to the importance of coupling financial assistance with academic support in which students are required to participate. Plus, it helps if the financial assistance is conditioned on students maintaining a minimum grade point average and a nearly full-time course load, which increases the likelihood of completion.
Since a state like Maine can’t afford to waste the investment it makes in any student, any college affordability plan should be judged by whether it targets resources to those who need the most help and stresses tactics proven to improve student retention.