Campaign promise of ‘debt-free’ college comes with cost, some say

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, poses for a photo in Washington June 16. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, poses for a photo in Washington June 16. (CNS photo/Tyler Orsburn)

By Carol Zimmermann Catholic News Service

WASHINGTON (CNS) — In the presidential election campaign, both major-party candidates have talked about the rising costs of college and the debt that graduates face because of student loans.

Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, has spoken out against federal student loans saying he doesn’t believe the government should make a profit from them, but he has not revealed his plans to lower college costs or reduce student debt and his campaign website has nothing on the topic of college education.

Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, has been much more vocal about college affordability. Earlier in the campaign she disagreed with her rival Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, saying his plan to provide a free public college education to every American just didn’t “add up.”

But when she became the party’s nominee, she modified her initial plan and is now proposing to offer free tuition at in-state public colleges and universities for students from families who earn up to $125,000 a year.

That announcement gave some Catholic college leaders pause.

“There are consequences” to Clinton’s proposal, said Mary Pat Seurkamp, special assistant to the president at the Washington-based Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities.

Seurkamp, former president of Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore, said such a policy could ultimately lead to some private colleges closing. She also wondered if public universities would be able to take in a wave of new students — and at what cost to those institutions.

A key factor she said the Clinton proposal didn’t consider is that Catholic colleges serve a diverse body of students economically and racially and also serve a higher number of lower-income students in more efficient ways than public universities because these students have lower default rates on their loans and tend to graduate in a faster amount of time.

“The focus on access and affordability is central to our schools,” she told Catholic News Service Aug. 10, noting that 82 percent of students in Catholic colleges and universities receive some sort of institutional aid.

Seurkamp also pointed out that if government leaders are seriously thinking about how to educate the largest percentage of our society, they should first take a closer look at the federal aid policy which might be “a better way than the free-tuition model.”

Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity Washington University, said the “free-college” idea — she always puts it in quotes when writing about it — gives further fuel to the myth that public colleges serve the poor and private schools serve the wealthy.

“That is not true,” she told CNS Aug. 11, pointing out that Catholic colleges serve a larger lower-income population that many public universities, noting that more than 75 percent of Catholic colleges and universities have 25 percent or more students with Pell grants — federal scholarships based on family need — and a quarter of Catholic colleges have more than 50 percent of students on Pell grants.

“You would be hard pressed to find a public university doing that,” she said.

Her own school, Trinity, where she has been president for 28 years, has more Pell grant recipients — 81 percent of last year’s freshman class — and a more diverse population — 90 percent African-American, Latina and recent immigrants — than many public universities in the Washington region.

She said although Trinity’s median family income is $25,000 they would be “left out of the Clinton plan while significantly wealthier students would get free college.”

McGuire said the Clinton proposal would not help lower-income students and could jeopardize them by pushing them away from Catholic institutions where they do well.

That notion echoes the education section of “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship,” the U.S. bishops’ document on political responsibility that provides guidance to Catholics on election decisions.

Although the section seems more geared to elementary and secondary education its message on education access and choice rings true for colleges too. The document says: “All persons have a right to receive a quality education. Young people, including those who are poor and those with disabilities, need to have the opportunity to develop intellectually, morally, spiritually, and physically, allowing them to become good citizens who make socially and morally responsible decisions. This requires parental choice in education.”

A key point in federal financial aid, McGuire added, is that students choose where they want to go to college.

“The Clinton proposal,” she said, “treats all higher education as if it is all the same, as if there is nothing of value in different institutions. That’s not true. Students need to find the best fit.”

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Follow Zimmermann on Twitter: @carolmaczim.


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