Hillary Clinton thinks she's figured out a way to tame the college-cost beast.
Last week, the presidential hopeful unveiled a $350 billion plan over 10 years to make college more affordable for millions of students.
Clinton's New College Compact is a sprawling and ambitious plan that includes some promising proposals, as well as sexy elements that aren't necessarily targeted to where the dollars are most needed.
Here's a look at some key features:
Encouraging state investments
Arguably Clinton's best proposal is linking federal college aid to state support. The plan would reward states with federal grants that stop cutting their higher-ed budgets and eventually begin investing more money into their institutions.
Across the country, state governments have been woefully underfunding their colleges and universities even as they continue to grow more popular. From 1989 through 2014, enrollment increased from 7.5 million to 11.1 million students, yet state aid hasn't kept pace. In fact, just two years ago state and local funding for public higher education was sitting at the lowest lever per full-time student in 25 years. This is one of the key reasons why tuition at state schools has escalated at alarming rates.
Incentivizing states with extra federal dollars could prod some state legislatures to start working to change the trend. On the other hand, many states balked when the Affordable Care Act offered to cover nearly all the costs of Medicaid expansion in the states. Clinton's plan could be an even harder sell.
A big requirement to attract extra federal aid is for the states to make sure "that no student should graduate with debt for tuition - and limiting costs for non-tuition expenses." Just how this would play out is unclear.
Combining loan repayment plans
There are currently four federal student loan repayment plans, which is too many. Clinton would like to combine all of them into one repayment program that would limit monthly payments for struggling borrowers to 10 percent of their discretionary income. Any remaining debt after 20 years would be forgiven. The biggest problem with federal repayment programs, besides too many of them, is that lots of eligible students aren't aware that they exist.
Simplifying the FAFSA
Clinton would like to make it easier to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is a requirement to qualify for need-based federal and state aid, as well as federal college loans. An ongoing concern is that the number of questions posed by the FAFSA discourages low-income families from applying.
There have been many calls to simplify the FAFSA including one to have all FAFSA questions fit onto a postcard. The problem with simplifying the application too much is that it could encourage even more schools to use the CSS/Financial Aid PROFILE, which is a more complicated and intrusive application.
Free community college
Making community college free isn't a new idea.
President Obama rolled out a free community college plan in January. This certainly is a sexy idea, but whether it targets the right students is questionable. Community college for needy students is often already free, but opening up this perk to students who don't need financial assistance is arguably a dubious idea. The proposal could also hurt the most vulnerable since free tuition could make enrolling in classes for current and new students more difficult as enrollment soars.
Rather than make community college free for everyone, money would arguably be better spent ensuring these students graduate on time, which rarely happens today. Investing more federal dollars into meaningful academic support, career and transfer counseling and increasing class availability would likely be more worthwhile, but that's not a headline grabber.