By Nancy L. Zimpher AUGUST 16, 2016

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle Hillary Clinton’s stance on public higher education — that every American student should be able to graduate from college debt free and, in millions of cases, tuition free — marks the first time that such a bold, expansive proposal has been put forth by a major party’s presidential nominee.

This proposition could not come at a more crucial time. As Clinton proposes, and as President Obama and Sen. Bernie Sanders have said, we must expand college access like never before and solve the problem of staggering student-loan debt once and for all.

And we can — but the reality is that college can never actually be free. Someone has to pay for our institutions to operate, to educate, to innovate, and to grow.

However, public colleges and universities could make attendance tuition free for students from low- and middle-income families, or roughly 80 percent of the population, if the federal government were to make the necessary investment in higher education that a policy of this magnitude would require. This remains a big "if," at least for the time being, but the fact that the conversation is so prevalent today represents a real opportunity.

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