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What Does It Mean For College To Be ‘Affordable’? Here’s One Answer

President Obama’s plan for free community college. Bernie Sanders’s vision of two years of debt-free college. Lamar Alexander’s nascent proposal to rewrite the Higher Education Act to produce a more effective higher ed system. Elizabeth Warren’s double-barreled push for more federal and state funding and greater accountability. Hillary Clinton’s $350 million proposed overhaul of higher ed financing.

Those are just some of the many public policy proposals circulating right now to revamp how the various parties involved in financing higher education — the federal and state governments, colleges and universities, philanthropic groups, and students and families — interact to do that. All of them, in one way or another, start with the premise that higher education is increasingly unaffordable for too many Americans.

But what does “affordable” even mean? And if politicians, policy makers and the public don’t have a shared understanding of what families should pay for college, can we really expect them to develop and agree on what to do about the problem?