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College affordability and student debt sparked many moments of discord on the campaign trail between the two candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for president. But now as the party pivots to take on Republican nominee, Donald Trump, those issues are proving to be key points of unity.
In her speech accepting the Democratic nomination Thursday, Hillary Clinton told supporters that she and her former rival Bernie Sanders would work together “to make college tuition-free for the middle class and debt-free for all.” That moment comes three days after Sanders said Clinton’s college affordability plan would “revolutionize higher education” as part of a pitch for party unity during his speech at the Democratic National Convention.
Clinton also used the issue as another opportunity to highlight the differences between her and her Republican opponent, saying, “it’s just not right that Donald Trump can ignore his debts, but students and families can’t refinance theirs.” Clinton and other Democrats, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, have been pushing for a change in law that would allow borrowers to refinance their federal student loans at lower interest rates.
These declarations are the culmination of an election that featured college affordability and student debt prominently for the first time, a sign that coping with student loans is getting closer to becoming a universal American problem. More than 40 million Americans are contending with a total of $1.3 trillion in student loan debt. (Trump, for his part, has said that he would roll out his college affordability plan in the next four weeks).
It can’t be overstated “how far the needle has moved on really seriously addressing the root causes and the major impacts of our system that essentially requires borrowing for college,” said Mark Huelsman, a senior policy analyst at Demos, who authored an influential report pushing for debt-free college last year. “Even four years ago when it was clear that this was a policy problem that needed to be resolved, you didn’t see big, bold reform on it.”
This time on the Democratic side of the race, there was universal agreement among the candidates that students should be able to attend a public college at least without taking on debt. The notion of debt-free or tuition-free college only really entered the political lexicon a little more than a year ago and it made it all the way to Clinton’s acceptance speech. What’s more, the topic was featured in one of only two moments when she mentioned Sanders in the speech and the issue where she’s arguably moved the most in his direction. (The Clinton campaign didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment as to what, if any, formal role Sanders would play in pushing the college affordability plan).
“The root cause of unity on the debt-free college issue is it’s immensely popular with voters and would be a game-changer in millions of people’s lives. Both candidates knew that and had an incentive to unify around this big idea,” said Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Commission, which helped push debt-free college into the mainstream through its advocacy. “A year and a half ago almost no politicians were talking about debt-free college and at this convention we’ve heard Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and a bunch of down-ticket candidates unifying around this big idea.”
On the campaign trail, Clinton advocated for a $350 billion plan she called the College Compact, which would allow all students to attend a public college or university without taking on debt. Sanders pushed to make public four-year universities tuition-free. Clinton often criticized Sanders’s plan for offering wealthy students, like Donald Trump’s kids, a chance to get a degree without paying. Sanders argued that in today’s economy, which often requires a degree for a decent job, college should be free, just like high school became free and universal when we moved from a farming economy to more of an industrial one.
Earlier this summer, Clinton released a revamped college affordability plan with Sanders’s support, which would allow students from families who make $125,000 or less to attend college tuition-free and would put a three month moratorium on student debt so that borrowers could get into a manageable repayment plan.
Though coming to an agreement on the issue was perhaps not a huge shift policy-wise, for Clinton, making some tweaks and changing the rhetoric around Clinton’s college affordability plan allowed her to infuse it with some of the energy that surrounded Sanders’s original proposal, Huelsman said.
“Clinton’s original plan was the stuff of white papers and Sanders’s original plan was the stuff of stump speeches,” he said. “They realized that any big policy reform is going to require the public’s understanding at first.”
Of course, the new plan has some critics. Some economists worried to the New York Times that the proposal could drive up the cost of college. Supporters of a controversial theory first publicized by William Bennett, a secretary of education under Ronald Reagan, argue that increasing the availability of aid to students pushes colleges to raise tuition because there’s now more money to pay for it. Still, there’s little evidence that public colleges respond in this way to more federal aid, likely because factors like state funding have a larger influence on their pricing, the left-leaning Center for American Progress noted recently .
Some have also argued that eliminating tuition only goes a short way in clamping down on the costs of college, which include room and board, textbooks and other miscellaneous expenses. Even Huelsman, who said he’s excited about Clinton’s plan and that the issue has been featured so prominently, said he hopes that she’ll elevate the concerns of current borrowers on the campaign trail, some of whom are struggling to pay off their debts after attending predatory for-profit colleges or who might benefit from being able to wipe away their loans in bankruptcy.
There are also those, like Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education and sociology at Temple University, who would prefer Clinton stay closer aligned to Sanders on the issue. Goldrick-Rab said she hopes Clinton will refine her message to simply say that public colleges and universities should be free, like Sanders, instead of the more nuanced and confusing “tuition-free for the middle class and debt-free for all” that she used in her speech.
For students who struggle to afford a degree, our college financing system, which asks students to fill out paperwork to find out how much of a discount they’ll got on a college’s (often relatively high) listed price, can be discouraging, she said. Declaring simply that public college would be free could provide a bigger push for these students. “The current system in its effort to target certain people and tell them it will be affordable delivers a really convoluted set of messages,” she said.
But despite her critiques, Goldrick-Rab said she’s excited to see the notion of free public college become an important issue in the presidential campaign. “She could really make some strides in that direction and that’s enormous,” Goldrick-Rab said.