Bernie-mentum Nudges Clinton Forward On Debt-Free College

Isaiah J. Poole

The persistence of the political coalition around Bernie Sanders has nudged Hillary Clinton toward a more progressive position on ensuring that working-class students can attend college debt-free.

Clinton announced on Wednesday changes to her college affordability plan that closely tracks a key component of the platform Sanders put forward in his race for the Democratic nomination: access to in-state, tuition-free public college. “Every student should be able to graduate from a public college or university in their state without taking on any student debt,” Clinton says in her plan.

Tuition-free public college would be available first to families making less than $85,000 a year, with that threshold reaching $125,000 a year by 2021. At that point, debt-free public college would be an option for 80 percent of families, according to the plan.

Clinton’s plan would also offer a “three-month moratorium on student loan payments to all federal loan borrowers. During this timeout from paying student loans, every borrower will be given the resources and targeted help they need to save money on their loans.” This moratorium would be accompanied by a crackdown on for-profit colleges and loan servicers are engaged in predatory behavior, Clinton promised.

Last week Clinton received sharp criticism for inserting into her plan for boosting technology industries a proposal for temporary debt forbearance or limited relief for college graduates starting a new business. Critics saw this as Clinton following her worst instincts for incrementalism and favoring key money interests – in this case Silicon Valley entrepreneurs with the wherewithal to consider assuming the risks of starting a new venture.

This week, Clinton received plaudits from Sanders, who said that the resulting policy change “is the result of the work of both campaigns.”

“I want to take this opportunity to applaud Secretary Clinton for the very bold initiative she has just brought forth today for the financing of higher education,” Sanders said in a statement. “Let me be very clear. This proposal, when implemented, will revolutionize the funding of higher education in America, improve the economic future of our country and make life immediately better for tens of millions of people stuck with high levels of student debt.”

Clinton’s proposal will mean that schools like the City University of New York will be able to restore their original vision of offering a top-quality education to all students regardless of ability to pay. That school was recently profiled in A New York Times article revealed that the once tuition-free school now changes upward of $6,300 a year for in-state residents, while cuts in state funding have meant that the school has fallen into deplorable disrepair.

Nationally, average tuition and fees at four-year public colleges have more than doubled since 2000 even after inflation is taken into account, according to the College Board. Due significantly to cuts in college support in states with Republican governors and legislatures, the average four-year bill for in-state tuition at a public university now exceeds $37,000. Add room and board, and the costs could easily exceed $80,000 in some states.

That is absurd, and it is right that Clinton has finally committed to a plan to end that absurdity.

What’s Donald Trump’s plan for making debt-free college a possibility for millions more working-class Americans? His Twitter feed as of noon Wednesday had no reaction to Clinton’s plan, but three tweets defending his record as a failed Atlantic City casino owner. (“Even the once great Caesars is bankrupt in A.C.” but “I made a lot of money” and “left 7 years ago.”).

But a conservative website, Red Alert Politics, suggests that Trump would draw his ideas for college policy from Sam Clovis, who has served as the campaign’s policy director. Clovis advocates eliminating federal college loans entirely, which could mean that “fewer students find funding for degrees that don’t have large economic returns,” and that colleges may have “more selective enrollment.”

“It could restrict college access, but also spare students the fate of dropping out with student loan debt,” Red Alert Politics wrote.

There’s a stark choice: One candidate, with a push from the progressives ignited by the Bernie Sanders campaign, commits to more funding to make tuition-free college more available. The Republican candidate’s route to debt-free college appears to be making it harder for students to get into college to begin with so they won’t accumulate debt. This choice, for millions of college graduates and for young people looking toward their freshman year and the casting of their first presidential ballot, is a no-brainer.

Get updates in your inbox