- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Free college.

At a time of record student debt and ever-rising tuition bills, that’s just what a new nonprofit organization wants to provide for America’s students.

Organizers behind Redeeming America’s Promise (RAP) said Tuesday the group has set a goal of making higher education attainable by providing scholarships to cover the full tuition costs of public colleges and schools of applied technology for eligible students.

SEE ALSO: BURKE: Elizabeth Warren leaves taxpayers on hook for more student loan subsidies

“We have in this country today a system for financing higher education that is fundamentally broken. It cannot be sustained economically, it cannot be sustained politically, and it certainly cannot be justified.” said Morley Winograd, president of RAP and a policy aide to former Vice President Al Gore.

College tuition costs have gone up over 600 percent between 1980 and 2009 and show little sign of easing. Total outstanding U.S. student loan debt recently surpassed $1.08 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve.

The new coalition comes in the midst of political debates in Washington focused on student loans, making the cost of higher education a target for reform. A week ago President Obama announced the expansion of his income-based loan repayment plan. Meanwhile, a bill by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts Democrat, to allow the refinancing of student loans was blocked by Senate Republicans.

President Obama’s pay-as-you-earn program would cap the amount of monthly loan payments at 10 percent of a borrower’s income and allow the loans to be forgiven after a certain amount of time. Ms. Warren’s bill would have let borrowers refinance their loans at lower interest rates but at a cost to the government of $51 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

In the private sector, Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz generated headlines this week with the launch of a partnership with Arizona State University to allow thousands of Starbucks employees to receive a free college education from the school’s online program, allowing them to graduate without any debt.

Employees will receive full tuition reimbursement by enrolling in ASU’s online program this fall as a junior or senior. If enrolling as freshmen or sophomores, employees will be eligible for a scholarship worth an average of $6,500.

RAP’s four-step plan, unveiled Tuesday, was inspired by the “Promise” scholarship programs in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and El Dorado, Arkansas. Tennessee has also established a similar program, providing state students with free tuition to public colleges paid for by the state’s lottery proceeds.

Kalamazoo’s program offers free college tuition at any public university in the state to students who graduate from the city’s K-12 public school system. This incentive boosted enrollment in Kalamazoo public schools by 25 percent, according to former Michigan Democratic Gov. James Blanchard, a RAP supporter.

RAP organizers emphasized the bipartisan nature of their initiative, with Republicans such as former Delaware Rep. Michael Castle and former Illinois Rep. Ray LaHood joining Mr. Blanchard joining the group’s backers.

RAP would offer an “America’s Promise Scholarship” to eligible students, using income-based repayment loans to cover non-tuition-related expenses and creating incentives for states to help make college affordable. These goals would be funded not with new taxes but by redirecting federal government profits and expenditures.

“It is only in this century that we have asked a generation — my favorite generation, the millennials — to self-finance the education they need, and that our country needs, to be economically successful. This wrongheaded intergenerational and economically disastrous policy needs to end before this country loses its global competitive edge for good,” said Mr. Winograd.

Mr. Winograd explained that the biggest concern of American families is covering the cost of higher education, citing surveys that find more than three-quarters of American families “don’t believe college education is affordable.”

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