Democrats Look to Make Debt-Free College the Key Campaign Issue of 2016

Could debt-free college be to 2016 what healthcare reform was to 2008? Some liberal Democrats are sure hoping so.


On Wednesday, nine Democratic senators came out in support of a resolution to make four-year public colleges in the US debt-free. The resolution, proposed last month by senators Brian Schatz, Chuck Schumer and Elizabeth Warren, calls on the federal government to provide states with support so that they can lower tuition costs, increase financial aid, reduce the burden of existing student debt. The resolution currently has 20 supporters in the Senate, while a similar resolution in the House has roughly 40 co-sponsors.

The increased support for the resolution adds pressure on potential 2016 Democratic presidential candidates to either endorse the resolution or come up with a plan of their own, with supporters of the debt-free college measure particularly interested in seeing where Hillary Clinton will come out on the issue.

A week prior to officially announcing his run for president, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders introduced a bill that would eliminate tuition at four-year public colleges and universities. The bill is estimated to cost $70bn a year – two-thirds of which would be covered by the federal government and one-third of which would be covered by the states. Federal funds for the bill would be sourced from a new tax that Sanders referred to as “a Wall Street speculation fee” to be imposed on Wall Street investment firms and hedge funds.

One of the main differences between Sanders’ plan and that of the other Democrats lies in what they seek to eliminate. While Sanders has narrowed his focus to tuition, others have zeroed in on debt.

The debt-free college plan has been championed by liberal organizations like Demos and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC), who argue that free tuition is not always enough as often times the debt taken on by students in college is used to cover expenses like room and board, books, and transportation.

“It’s more than just tuition,” said Mark Huelsman, senior policy analyst at think tank Demos, who drafted his organization’s proposal for debt-free four-year public colleges.

Martin O’Malley has come out in favor of debt-free college.In April, the likely presidential candidate told his supporters that “every student should be able to go to college debt-free”.

Clinton has also adopted the rhetoric of debt-free college, even though she has yet to officially lay out her plan on this particular issue.

“We have to deal with the indebtedness and try to move toward making college as debt-free as possible,” Clinton said last week in Iowa.

At yet another stop on the campaign trail, she said: “There’s something wrong when students and their families have to go deeply into debt to be able to get the education and skills they need in order to make the best of their own lives.”

Clinton’s campaign has hinted that she might tackle the issue in order to appeal to the younger voters whom many credited with Obama’s victory.

“What voters are looking for is someone to be a champion for everyday people. And for young people, that’s debt-free college; that is finding that job after you graduate,” Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign director, said on CNBC’s Squawk Box a couple of weeks earlier. “We are looking across the board and we are going to fight for every single vote in every single state.”

Meanwhile, the PCCC has already begun organizing in states like New Hampshire and Iowa to rally young voters behind the Democrats’ idea of debt-free tuition. Over 200 political leaders in those two states have endorsed the PCCC’s debt-free college plan. According to Adam Green, cofounder of the PCCC and a former MoveOn organizer, polling shows that for Democrats, going big on student debt and tuition costs appeals to potential voters.

“Bigger is better. Bigger is more popular. If we want to both excite the voters and win a mandate in 2016, we need to propose a policy that will be game-changing in as many people’s lives as possible. Free community college is good, but debt-free at all public colleges is the game-changer,” Green told the Guardian.

A poll conducted by PCCC’s sister organization Progressive Change Institute found that likely Democratic voters in 2016 who didn’t vote in 2014 have shown interest in debt-free college as an issue.

“Of all the issues that we polled, the number one most motivational issue that non-voters say they would have voted for if somebody had campaigned on it was debt-free college,” explained Green. “So what we are saying to the Democratic party is don’t just endorse debt-free college, make it a centerpiece of the 2016 election. Make it so that voters come to the polls thinking: ‘Today, voting is going to get debt-free college for my kid.’ If Democrats win a landslide in 2016, after making debt-free college central, then we will have a mandate that will be impossible for Republicans to stop.”

It’s the voice of the voters and their rallying behind the issue that Democrats hope will convince the Republicans to get on board come 2016.

At the moment, the Obama administration is attempting to push through a proposal that would eliminate tuition at two-year community colleges. The America’s College Promise, as the plan is known, would split the cost between the federal government, which would cover 75%, and state government, which would cover the other 25%. Even if the plan ends up going nowhere in Washington, it has raised the profile of the issue.

To make four-year public colleges debt-free, similar cost-sharing would have to happen. In light of cuts to state funding for higher education across the US, the “federal government would need to step in and offer incentives”, said Huelsman.

What would it take for such cost-sharing measures to actually pass through Congress in 2016? Campaigners say nothing short of a Democratic landslide.

“A new Democratic president, a new Democratic senate and House Republicans who are well aware that they are in a political peril if they oppose this very popular issue of debt-free college,” said the PCCC’s Green.

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