09/27/2015 07:55 pm ET Updated Sep 27, 2016

Let's Make Higher Education Reform Equitable

In the last few years, higher education reform, especially vis-à-vis college access and affordability, has become a clarion call among politicians and others throughout the nation, including some candidates for president of the United States. Two in particular, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, both democrats, have issued fairly well-developed proposals. While there is much to applaud in each of their proposals, both plans benefit public at the expense of independent colleges, thereby instituting an unnecessary element of unfairness that can negatively affect many college students.

Sanders' College for All Act and Clinton's New College Compact both present universal reforms of student aid that are reasonable, much-needed, and fair to both public and independent colleges. For example, the College for All Act would cut interest rates on student loans essentially in half, provide "robust educational benefits" for those who serve the nation through service in AmeriCorps and the military, closely link student loan repayment rates to income level, and permanently extend the American Opportunity Tax Credit (which expires in two years) to provide tax relief for college tuition.

Similarly, the College for All Act would also cut interest rates on student loans in half, simplify the aid application process, simplify student loan refinancing, and expand the student work study aid program. These and other measures in both plans will go a long way to make college more affordable for all students, regardless of which type of institution they wish to attend--public or private. But certain key provisions in both plans also favor public institutions.

For example, Clinton's New College Compact incentivizes states to provide free tuition to students enrolled in community colleges, and "no-loan tuition" for students in four-year public institutions. Sanders' College for All Act seeks to offer all students at public institutions free tuition by providing nearly fifty billion dollars to the states to subsidize the cost of the program. These are both ambitious and laudatory measures, but by concentrating solely on public institutions they disadvantage hundreds of thousands of students in the nation's many independent colleges.

One of the strengths of the system of higher education in this nation is that it offers students a huge array of types of institutions to enroll in, from community colleges, to professional colleges, to masters- and doctoral-level public universities, to a range of private institutions--from four-year liberal arts colleges to elite ivy league universities. This impressive range of institutions allows prospective students to match their own strengths, desires and aspirations with the institution that best fits them personally.

Independent colleges are an essential component of this range of institutions. In fact, many people may not be aware of just how central private colleges are to American higher education. For example, in my own state, New York, private institutions educate the majority (53%) of all students in four-year and graduate programs. The state's professional association for private colleges, the Commission on Independent Colleges and Universities, reports that in 2012-13 private colleges awarded the majority of bachelor's (51%), master's (71%), and doctoral and professional degrees (80%) earned in the state.

Nationwide, over 1,700 private, nonprofit colleges and universities enroll about 5 million students. In other words, national reform of higher education that does not include independent colleges seriously disadvantages many college students (in my state, the majority).

To be fair, Clinton's plan does include a provision that provides funding for private colleges that serve a high percentage of lower-income students, but both the Sanders and Clinton plans specifically propose to lower or eliminate tuition at public institutions, and this alone could prove to introduce new injustices into a system that everyone seems to agree is already seriously flawed.

To make these plans to reform higher education more equitable, the candidates can take the funding that they are proposing to provide state governments as incentives and allocate it directly to the student aid system. This would allow each student to choose his or her desired college rather than be pushed toward a public institution that may or may not be as desirable for that particular student.

I applaud these two candidates for their initiative, but I hope they will more fully think out the consequences of their provisions before they make a formal effort to introduce their proposals into law. Let's not forget the many thousands of students who attend the nation's private, not-for-profit colleges and universities.