How Would Your Favorite Presidential Candidate Vote on Free College?

Republicans and Democrats say expanding access to college is a must. They just can't agree on how.

College affordability is having a moment. Lawmakers are finally beginning to address the fact that too many students are priced out of higher education in the United States.

And the topic will only become more prominent as the 2016 presidential race approaches, with candidates eager to appeal to an increasingly varied spectrum of voters. People are worried about how to pay for college, and candidates know they need to offer a roadmap to be considered viable.

Though the proposals vary, there are unifying themes, chief among them expanding access to students who have traditionally been left out of the halls of academia—new immigrants, English-language learners, and young people with disabilities among them.

Former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat, made the issue personal on Wednesday as he revealed that his family has taken out more than $300,000 in loans to put his children through college. As president, he said, he would aim to make college debt-free by instituting tuition caps and boosting Pell Grants and work-study programs.

O'Malley's toughest rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, told students during an April roundtable in Iowa that she supports President Obama's plan to make community college free, and promised to "flesh out the bad actors"—schools who take advantage of at-risk students and send them deep into debt for financial gain without providing a quality education in return.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, the liberal darling of Vermont, went a step further by announcing that he thinks four-year public colleges and universities should be completely free, a move that won praise from young voters who have turned out in droves to hear him speak.

On the Republican side, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida last year told National Journal that he wants to increase access to education by allowing private investors to pay for a student's college costs in exchange for a percentage of their income after graduation. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush has called for more university transparency when it comes to graduates' job prospects, and praised technological advances that allow for low-cost, online learning, which could benefit older students who are juggling careers and families.

It's not just 2016 contenders who are turning their attention to making college more attainable for people from all backgrounds.

Democratic lawmakers in both the House and Senate this week introduced legislation aimed at making community college free for low-income students, which dovetails with President Obama's free-community-college proposal. The legislation would provide federal matching for state dollars spent on community colleges, and assist certain students attending historically black and other colleges.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan praised their efforts during a call with reporters on Wednesday, and said the proposal will help, in particular, recent immigrant students and others who do not come from affluent backgrounds.

Democratic Rep. Linda Sanchez of California, one of seven children of immigrant parents who came to the United States from Mexico with little money, agrees, saying at a news conference on Wednesday, "Too many Latino and first-generation college students are simply priced out of a four-year institution."

Yet Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia said during the news conference that while the proposal has more than 60 Democratic cosponsors, no Republicans have backed the plan.

This week, Sen. Lamar Alexander, a Republican from Tennessee who chairs the education committee, wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the idea that college is too expensive is "a myth." Democrats vehemently disagree.

There are deep partisan disagreements over who should get loans, what interest rates should be, and how colleges themselves should be evaluated. And for all the talk from 2016 candidates, none have offered truly detailed policy ideas.

But Alexander also wrote that he supports simplifying the federal financial-aid form, known as FAFSA. That's something that lawmakers across party lines agree on and an area that could see real reform.

Right now students fill out a form with more than 100 questions, inputting redundant information. And they fill it out and receive their awards late, just a month or so before college decisions are due.

Aware of growing momentum around reworking the form, the Gates Foundation (a Next America sponsor) on Wednesday published suggestions aimed at increasing the number and type of students who pursue some form of higher education, according to Dan Greenstein, director of postsecondary success at the foundation. The suggestions include shortening the form, importing existing tax information instead of requiring students to fill it in again, and expanding the application window. The "energy" and enthusiasm for reform are evident on both sides of the aisle, Greenstein said.

So college affordability's moment is messy and convoluted, and there's no guarantee of real reform. But the chances of giving more students access to college are greater now that those in charge of making the laws acknowledge the obstacles.