Debt Free College? If You Get a Blow, it Won't Be From the Federal Government

NEW YORK (MainStreet) — ”Debt-free college” has become the buzz phrase of choice at a time when nearly everyone seems to be talking about student debt while no one does anything about it except borrow more money.

Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass), who has famously declared herself a non-candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, has embraced Debt Free College and spelled out her own plan, which focuses on the debt load at public colleges and universities. Hillary Clinton, who needs to shore up her bona fides with Millennial voters, has hinted that she may throw her hat into the debt-free college ring, going so far as to say that college should be as "debt-free as possible." A Higher Education Promise for the 21st Century, a manifesto from non-profit The Young Invincibles, homes in on the borrower’s monthly payments and wants to "cut existing debt payments by as much as 70% for the typical current borrower."

But the money will have to come from somewhere. The Higher Education Act (HEA), first passed in 1965 as part of President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society and last reauthorized in 2008, is the source of all Title IV Federal funding for education and is due to be reauthorized this year. The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which funds primary and secondary education and is also a Great Society law, will be passed before the HEA.

"ESEA reauthorization is on time, even a little ahead of schedule, and there are plans to move onto HEA reauthorization when ESEA is done, despite the upcoming elections," said Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors.com, a website that provides intelligence on student loans.

So if you're a Millennial with college plans for the fall and waiting for Uncle Sam to show you the money, what can you expect?

"I don’t expect that there will be big changes to the HEA when it's reauthorized," Kantrowitz said. "We’ll see better counseling and better disclosures, maybe some streamlining and simplification, but no new money for student aid.”

Regardless of how it's defined, debt-free college, or even Clinton's debt-free-as-possible alternative, wouldn’t be cheap. Neither would limiting the debt-free college concept to public colleges and universities. Making public college tuition-free, as Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, a Clinton rival, has proposed, would cost $70 billion a year. Alternatives that would be limited to students from low-income families might be about $30 billion--less than half that amount. President Obama's plan to make community college free for students with a 2.0 grade-point average is getting little attention as a template--or even a conversation starter.

In terms of cost, the gap between private, non-profit colleges and public universities that grant bachelor's degrees complicates a one-size-fits-all solution. The University of Chicago is nearly $70,000 per year and Columbia University in New York is nearly $65,000 for tuition, room and board, with the cost of living being the wild card. Tuition at Hunter College, located on the Upper East Side and part of the City University of New York, is a tad over $24,000--for four years. Being a "debt free" student at Columbia means something very different than it does at Hunter.

None of the Republican candidates have embraced the debt-free college concept thus far--New Jersey Governor Chris Christie slammed Sanders's debt-free idea and wants "market forces" to bring down the cost of college. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chair of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pension committee has dismissed the debt-free college concept as a political stunt.

More from Personal Finance

When Is It 'Worth It' to Work With a Financial Advisor?

When Is It 'Worth It' to Work With a Financial Advisor?

Why Millennials Are Ditching Stocks for ETFs

Why Millennials Are Ditching Stocks for ETFs

Amazon Prime Day 2018: When Is It and What Should You Know?

Amazon Prime Day 2018: When Is It and What Should You Know?

When Is the FAFSA Deadline and What Are the Application Requirements?

When Is the FAFSA Deadline and What Are the Application Requirements?

This Should Be Your Retirement Savings Plan When the Stock Market Crashes

This Should Be Your Retirement Savings Plan When the Stock Market Crashes