Clinton’s plan to make public university tuition F-R-E-E

In this photo taken Sept. 21, 2016, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign stop in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) — Hillary Clinton is busy fending off accusations that she smeared Bernie Sanders supporters as overly idealistic millennials living in their parents’ basements.

In reality, the leaked audio from February perfectly reflects her evolution on the issue of college affordability – from “free college” skeptic to its biggest cheerleader.

Throughout the campaign, Clinton has been fond of sharing her personal history as a cash-strapped law student subsisting on student loans.

The Yale Law grad tells crowds it was only through loans, and the education they afforded, that she landed a rewarding job at the Children’s Defense Fund for a paltry $14,000 a year.

The final sum was sizable but manageable. Her loan repayments were capped due to her low salary. The interest rates weren’t exorbitant.

Why on earth, she demands, are today’s students not given the same opportunity?

It’s a bonding moment we’ve seen time and again in 2016 between the multimillionaire candidate and the millennials whose votes she covets.

Clinton embraces free tuition

At the beginning of this election cycle, Clinton introduced her “New College Compact,” which has maintained much of its structure to this day.

The Democratic nominee often uttered the words “debt-free” and insisted that anyone who was willing to work hard should have the chance to graduate from public universities without crushing student loan debt.

Debt-free, not scot-free, was the message du jour.

Early on, Clinton argued that every family, rich or poor, should make at least a small monetary investment in their child’s education.

But as Clinton courted former opponent Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) endorsement, she tweaked her proposal to finally include that all-important four-letter word: free.

The alteration left many confused about what, exactly, Clinton’s final plan entails.

The basics

Clinton regularly points out that American student loan debt exceeds a staggering $1.2 trillion.

Unlike most debt – be it credit cards or home mortgages – student loans follow borrowers around for life, no matter their fiscal fitness or bankruptcy filings.

With an eye to change the status quo, Clinton proposes the following:

  • Free community college
  • Free in-state tuition and public colleges and universities
    • Families earning less than $85,000 per year (2017)
    • Income limit increased by $10,000 per year until 2021
    • Families earning less than $125,000 per year (2021)
  • Refinance options to lower interest rates
  • Repayment levels capped at 10% of borrower’s income
  • Full debt forgiven after 20 years
  • $25B fund for HBCUs and Hispanic-serving schools
  • Executive order declaring three-month moratorium on all federal student loan payments
  • Apply Pell grants to living costs
  • Add civil service jobs, with accompanying debt forgiveness

Clinton admits it will take policymaker buy in, but stresses that her plan would create a far better system than the existing one.

What’s not covered

The term “free” might be slightly misleading since some costs will not be covered by Clinton’s proposal.

First and foremost, private college and universities – including most of the nation’s most prestigious schools – would not be forced to fully underwrite students’ tuition.

Some private universities warn that Clinton’s tuition plan could destroy their enrollment numbers and end their existence.

It’s worth noting that many of these institutions, like Yale and Princeton, already offer generous scholarships to needy students.

Another major unsubsidized cost would be room and board.

The cost of a dorm room, meal plan, and accompanying costs can run north of $10,140 per year at public universities, reports CNN.

This could be a foreboding cost for certain students.

Billion-dollar price tag

It doesn’t take an economics degree to know that there’s no such thing as free tuition.

Clinton’s program is projected to cost at least $450 billion.

Someone’s paying for it.

So the freebies would come courtesy of higher taxes.

Since Clinton is working to gain the support of low- and middle-income voters, she will pin the cost on wealthy Americans.

The exact dollars and cents haven’t been laid out, but Clinton’s campaign website says “this plan will be fully paid for by limiting certain tax expenditures for high-income taxpayers.”

Follow Chance Seales on Twitter: @ChanceSeales