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Debate takes shape on affordable higher ed

The good news: both parties are talking about how to make tuition costs more affordable. The bad news: the Republican idea is a poor solution.
Tassels hang from a cap during commencement exercises on May 9, 2014.
Tassels hang from a cap during commencement exercises on May 9, 2014.
It was back in January that President Obama unveiled his plan to make tuition at community colleges free for students who qualify. Though the president emphasized the idea in his State of the Union address soon after, Congress' disinterest pushed the proposal from the political world's radar.
The White House, however, hasn't given up on the measure. Just a few days ago, Vice President Biden devoted the official White House weekly address to the issue, highlighting the broad benefits associated with the policy.
A few hours later, however, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) campaigned in Iowa, where he pushed an alternative approach.

"The president wants to offer you free college," Paul said, referring to President Barack Obama's State of the Union proposal to fund two years of community college (not an education at a place like Iowa State, which is a public university) for any American who wanted it. "Sounds good, at first, until you really think about it. How could it be free?  Won't somebody still bear the cost of paying professors, paying for electricity, paying janitorial services?  I've got a better idea -- let's let college students deduct the cost of their education over their working career!"

If this sounds at all familiar, it may be because the fictional Bartlett White House considered a similar idea on "The West Wing" in its fourth season.
Before kicking around the details, the debate itself is heartening. In recent years, we've seen Democrats talk about various proposals to make higher ed more affordable to more Americans, which Republicans have generally rejected -- too much spending, too much government, not enough free market.
Paul's comments at least create the basis for a more progressive debate: let's have a discussion about how, not whether, policymakers will help create educational opportunities for young adults.
That's the good news. The bad news is, the Kentucky Republican's idea is deeply flawed.
Libby Nelson had a good piece on this the other day, explaining that tax-deductible tuition "is a good applause line," but it's a policy mess.

In the higher education policy universe, making it easier for students to afford a college of their choice takes second place to helping students who can't be able to afford college at all. That's why higher education benefits are mostly progressive, with Pell Grants and subsidized loans available for students from the bottom half of the income distribution, and unsubsidized federal loans for everyone else. Even the main higher education tax credit, the American Opportunity Tax Credit, has a substantial share of beneficiaries from families making less than $50,000 per year.

Tax-deductible tuition, however, is regressive, not progressive -- it benefits those at the top.
What's more, the whole idea of tax reform, which both parties ostensibly support, is to reduce tax deductions and simplify the tax code. Rand Paul's suggestion, of course, does the opposite.
As the report added, there's already a policy in place that allows households to deduct tuition costs, but it's "capped at $4,000 and only applies to families making less than $160,000 per year in taxable income." Though the details are sketchy, it appears the Kentucky Republican hopes to move the policy to the right, making it easier for wealthy families to take better advantage of the existing tax break.
It is, in other words, a poor way to pursue a worthwhile goal.