As Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders move to make free college a key piece of the Democratic platform, officials at some public colleges around the region are hopeful that at the very least the effort will keep the issue of cost in the spotlight.
"I believe it's a movement that's not going to just die with the election," said Kenneth Witmer Jr., dean of West Chester University's College of Education and Social Work. "I think we'll see pressure - from both those who want to go to college and those who came out owing a lot of money - on politicians to respond to this."
Sanders made free college tuition a rallying cry during his campaign and attracted support from many students. Earlier this month, Clinton announced her plan to offer free tuition by 2021 to students from families with annual incomes of less than $125,000 who attend public colleges in their state. Her announcement came after she met with Sanders last month and the two strategized on how to keep college costs at the forefront of the general election debate.
Speaking at the Democratic convention Monday, Sanders said that although he and Clinton had sparred in the past over plans to make college affordable, they had agreed on the plan with the $125,000 income target, which he noted covers 83 percent of the population. His remarks again put student debt in the national spotlight.
"It certainly feels like the first time in my lifetime that higher-education affordability and access has taken such a prominent position in a presidential primary process," said Mary Cathryn Ricker, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, who was on a panel in Philadelphia this week on student debt.
Clinton's proposal would apply to both community colleges and four-year state universities, including West Chester, Cheyney, and 12 other schools in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. It's unclear whether the four state-supported universities - Temple, Penn State, Pittsburgh, and Lincoln - would qualify, said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. He thinks they will.
But the proposal likely faces a steep climb.
Conservatives in Congress have been reluctant to fund free tuition plans. President Obama's proposal to make community college free went nowhere after he unveiled it with fanfare 18 months ago.
Under Clinton's proposal, states would be required to contribute matching funds if they want the federal support. Many states, including Pennsylvania, have cut or frozen higher-education funding in recent years and only in the last year or so have approved modest increases.
It's also not clear where the tens of billions in federal dollars would come from to fund the plan.
"This plan isn't yet much of a plan, but it's a general step in the right direction," said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor in educational policy studies and sociology who recently joined Temple and who studies college affordability. "My biggest concern is that simplicity is paramount for getting lower-income folks in college, so their insistence on means testing to restrict access at $125,000 may backfire. It means less clarity and more paperwork."
Under Clinton's proposal, the free tuition in the first year would apply to families with incomes under $85,000. The income cap would be raised by $10,000 each year until it reached $125,000 in 2021.
Joni Finney, director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania, said that while Clinton's proposal was "a step in the right direction" in addressing rising college costs, the $125,000 income cap is too high. It should remain at $85,000, she said, with families earning above that contributing on a sliding scale.
"I'd rather see that money used to pay the full cost for lower-income people," she said, so that they don't have to borrow.
Finney said Clinton needs to get state support.
"If this is all just crafted in Washington and foisted on states, you're going to get so much pushback, it's really going to slow the process down," she said.
Donald "Guy" Generals Jr., president of the Community College of Philadelphia, said the issue of college costs transcends party lines, so building consensus should be possible.
"I think if we could get the acrimony out of Washington politics, we could make it happen," he said. "There's never been a more important time than right now to provide greater access to education. I think the momentum is building toward it."
Some education experts have raised concerns that a free public tuition plan would hurt some small private colleges already struggling to survive. Some also question whether state colleges have the capacity to accommodate a likely increase in students and whether the plan could drive up tuition costs.
Despite concern, the Democratic Party's proposals have renewed discussion on the role of states in funding higher education, Nassirian said. States once funded much more of the cost of their universities; in Pennsylvania, the state used to cover 75 percent, compared with a quarter now.
"We let costs get out of control," he said. "Anything that locks federal and state financing of higher education in a more coordinated way will help slow down the privatization of higher education and promote greater affordability."