Bernie Sanders pushes cost-of-college debate to 2016 mainstream

Bernie Sanders supportersWhen Hillary Clinton won big Tuesday in New York's Democratic primary, she said it's not enough to diagnose problems, one must have a way to solve them. Her swipe at Sen. Bernie "Free College" Sanders echoed what she told Newsday's editorial board last week, when members asked whether she's disappointed that young women aren't more thrilled by the ceiling-shattering prospect of her candidacy for president. Clinton responded that young people were "excited by something new and that is a little different and a little revolutionary and promises free college."

Aha. The price of a college education is front and center in this campaign in a way it never has been before. Democrats like Clinton and Sanders are speaking to their party's left-most wing, which wants answers. And once the GOP names its candidate, it's a good bet that he will have to answer the question, too.

Whether Sanders' "free" college is really free or practical, he has at least put this issue on the front burner. As a country, we have an obligation to take down barriers to people making better lives for themselves. American history, as Sanders often points out, shows that we have traditionally valued education as a public good - not something people should be priced out of. Let's return to that inspired impulse.

We live in an age when jobs that don't require a college education seem to be moving offshore, and even a degree doesn't promise steady employment. American students and parents cling to the hope that an education will smooth life's path in this rock-and-roll economy. The majority of colleges and universities are fielding growing numbers of applications in the last 15 years, and with the demand and rising costs of attendance, student debt is soaring.

President Barack Obama's response has been to vastly expand federal loan programs. Pell grants grew from $14.6 billion a year in 2008 to about $40 billion today. He also wanted to assign a single number to each college or university to indicate the value they offer - something like the letter grades displayed in each New York City restaurant window, said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the higher education industry association American Council on Education.

The ratings system was designed to put pressure on colleges and universities to control costs. It never materialized -- perhaps the higher education lobby fought against it, perhaps it was too complicated from the outset. Stories differ. However, there does seem to be a greater emphasis on numbers. College admissions officers speak about retention rates from freshman to sophomore year -- a measure of student satisfaction - and about the percentage of graduates who have jobs within six to nine months. Admissions officers boast about "return on investment" -- that is, how much those graduates make in salary compared with the cost of tuition.

As Sanders wants to make higher education free, Clinton wants it to be debt-free. Her "New College Compact" would still require well-off families to pay tuition. Lower- and middle-class families -- along with military veterans and those who've completed a national service program -- could go to public universities tuition-free. Everyone, Clinton says, should be able to graduate without taking on debt.

She also has adopted initiatives that Obama hasn't been able to push through, such as free two-year community college. Expanding opportunities for Americans is the right direction. Let's hope the campaign talk survives the reality postelection.

First published in Newsday.