Progressives are beginning to rally around Sen. Elizabeth Warren's proposal for debt-free college. Perhaps more significantly, Hillary Clinton's campaign team has been talking with Warren's education advisers as Clinton works to craft her own plan to place at the center of her policy platform.
On the whole right now, Warren's proposal, with its very loose explanation of how it would be paid for, is highly unlikely to move forward in the Republican-controlled Congress. But there are aspects of Warren's plan that have conservative support.
And that's by design. In a speech to the Albert Shanker Institute and the American Federation of Teachers last week laying out her plan to achieve a "debt-free option" for students, Warren said the debate about college affordability often ends in a stalemate. Democrats, she said, want more resources to help students cover the cost of college. Republicans focus on students taking on debt without being aware of the consequences, and the need for colleges to be held accountable when they receive federal dollars.
"Our college crisis needs a one-two punch—more resources and better incentives to keep costs low," Warren said in her Wednesday speech.
Warren pushed for a way to make sure schools bear some of the cost when students default on their loans, coupled with the reduction of certain reporting requirements and regulations, though she did not get into specifics about what requirements would be lifted and what would replace them.
"If done right—not just window-dressing, but with a real and robust accountability mechanism—this could create meaningful incentives to cut costs and boost graduation," Warren said. She also emphasized her support for reducing the number of questions asked to determine federal-aid eligibility, and highlighted the work done by Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who is chairman of the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee.
Warren's emphasis on federal-aid applications and ensuring colleges have "skin in the game" is something the chairman thinks is important, too.
"Her support for legislation [Alexander] has introduced with Senator Bennet and others to simplify the process for applying for federal financial aid—as well as her contributions to discussions around reducing burdensome regulations and giving colleges and universities more 'skin in the game'—are critical," an aide to Alexander told National Journal.
Richard Vedder, an adjunct scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, said it was a testament to the decline of trust in higher-education institutions that a liberal stalwart like Warren was supporting such an initiative. But Vedder's still betting there'll be other aspects of Warren's plan intended to satisfy Democrats that would make the full proposal DOA in Congress.
Another potential area of agreement Warren mentioned in her speech is making the Pell Grant system operate year-round. The 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which was signed into law by President George W. Bush, included a provision to allow students who attended classes year-round to access a second Pell Grant.
But in 2011, the Obama administration ended the year-round Pell Grant program.
"There was nothing wrong with it," said Jason Delisle, director of the Federal Education Budget Project at the New America Foundation, who previously worked on the Republican staff for the Senate Budget Committee. Earlier this year, Delisle collaborated on a report on the program, pushing back against criticisms that the Department of Education had botched implementation, which drove up costs.
"It cost what it costs for a variety of reasons that were legitimate," Delisle said. "Don't be surprised that the cost of reinstating it will be big."
None of this is to say conservatives and Republicans agree with the entirety of Warren's proposals. Delisle said he was not even sure what the definition of "debt-free" was.
"Does debt-free mean free?" he asked. "We need to see specifics."
Warren's office argues that many of the senator's proposals would cost the government nothing, and some would lead to better allocation of resources or revenue. But Vedder doubted that the amount of money saved from the skin-in-the-game proposal would be significant.
"If you are looking at a budget-balancing perspective, this is not going to be a deal changer," particularly if the recovery of money from schools after loan defaults is only partial, Vedder said.
For now, there is at least some opening for a bipartisan agreement on higher-education reform. But that window isn't nearly as wide as Warren or Clinton may be counting on.
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Eric Garcia is a staff correspondent for National Journal. He previously was a transparency reporter for MarketWatch, where he reported on financial regulation issues. His work has also appeared in the Southern Political Report, Salon, the American Prospect and the New Republic. He is a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and covered politics for its campus paper, the Daily Tar Heel.