Hillary Clinton’s Tuition Free Plan Might Not Work, Unless…
Of course Hillary Clinton’s proposal for tuition free college seems like a great idea to me. I am an educator who believes in the promise of higher education, and I’m also the father of two young children who is desperately trying to find the spare cash to put away for their college funds.
But a quick sniff of the partisan air around Washington (not to mention state capitals) tells me that implementing Clinton’s plan to make college free for families making less than $125,000 is going to be controversial, to say the least. Conservatives will resist any raising of taxes to pay for the program. Progressives will demand that higher education be accessible to all Americans.
Is there nothing on which both can agree?
I think if Clinton really wants this plan to succeed, she needs to inspire America with her pitch.
Specifically, she must inspire more than prospective college students and their parents. I suggest she sweeten the pot and thereby strengthen her coalition of supporters with what I will call “The Civic Solution”.
Look, America’s broken. It is not just our infrastructure that’s cracking; we also face rifts that are religious, regional, and racial. Let’s demand that college graduates help us repair our bridges, while building bridges between communities. Let’s tie education grants for students attending public institutions to outcomes for the public good.
And why not? Many are calling for tying any kind of public grants to tuition freezes, and Clinton’s own plan requires that states put up a good chunk of the money. Why can’t we demand that institutions prepare students for lives of civic engagement?
We are at a moment in American history where we need to be inspired by the promise of our diversity.
Clinton must sell her #TuitionFree proposal as not just a giveaway, but an investment in the American future. The hashtag isn’t helping.
In her proposal, she names the AmeriCorps program as a way for students to get loan forgiveness. Why not bolster and expand it? AmeriCorps is a major achievement of Bill Clinton’s administration and is a great example of the kind of civic-minded organization that engages young people, local agencies, faith groups, and the private sector for the common good. Like the GI Bill—which is widely considered an economic catalyst for American growth—AmeriCorps includes education awards to pay tuition or repay qualified student debt. But the amounts of AmeriCorps education awards are tied to the amounts of Pell Grants, which fund an ever-shrinking percentage of tuition. For this program to continue to succeed, we also have to recommit resources to the Pell Grant program, which has provided college funding to lower-income students for decades.
The Interfaith Youth Core is an organization that I have worked closely with and admire. Founded by Eboo Patel, an Indian-American, Muslim, Rhodes Scholar andauthor, IFYC trains college and university students to build civic engagement through community service. They engage faculty, staff, and administration in the science and art of leadership and cooperation. Interfaith leaders who engage in service, acting out of their deepest values, discuss them and the religious, philosophical, and secular ideals that birth them. Where I teach, at California Lutheran University, the students, faculty, and staff who are involved in the movement for interfaith cooperation come from the most diverse backgrounds and share some of the tightest bonds on campus. We should find ways to encourage private support so that organizations like IFYC, which can boast positive results, can scale their efforts.
We have to deepen the impact of programs like these. We cannot simply tell students just that it’s good to engage in our communities, we need to equip them with the skills to do so! The government can partner with a coalition like Campus Compact, which connects over a thousand colleges and universities in helping students forge their citizenship skills and engage the public good.
Let’s double down to tie loan forgiveness to volunteering at public events to build civic partnerships and habits of service. Let’s create more public-private partnerships that Americans of all political backgrounds can champion.
As we saw from the diversity of speakers at the Democratic National Convention, the Clinton brand in this election is already staked on a kind of “togetherness” in the face of division. Let’s deepen that. Let’s tie it to our vision for education, and let’s tie that vision for education to a vision for the future. We are at a moment in American history where we need to be inspired by the promise of our diversity.
If you’re listening, Hillary, take it from a University educator: the next generation of Americans, who I teach, is not bound up in the silly hyper-partisanship that consumes the cable news cycle. Let’s capitalize on their desire to do well in life, and their commitment to doing good.
Let’s invest in them, and encourage them to invest in America.
Dr. Rahuldeep Singh Gill consults, speaks, and writes about training leaders for a global society. He serves as Campus Interfaith Strategist at California Lutheran University, where he is a tenured professor of global religions.