The affordability of colleges and student indebtedness sparked many moments of contention during the election campaign between the two candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination. But now that the party is pivoting to take on Republican candidate Donald Trump, these questions are proving to be key points of unity.
In his speech accepting the Democratic nomination Hillary Clinton told supporters on Thursday that she and her former rival Bernie Sanders would work together “to make tuition free for the middle class and debt-free for all.” This moment comes three days after Sanders said the Clinton universities accessibility plan would “revolutionize higher education” in a plea for party unity during his speech at the Democratic National Convention.
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Clinton also used the question as another opportunity to highlight the differences between herself and her Republican opponent, saying, “It’s just not fair that Donald Trump can ignore his debts, but students and families can’t refinance. theirs. Clinton and other Democrats, including Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, pushed for a change in law that would allow borrowers to refinance their federal student loans at lower interest rates.
These statements are the culmination of an election that first highlighted college affordability and student debt, a sign that student loan management is on the cusp of becoming a universal American problem. More than 40 million Americans are struggling with a total of $ 1.3 trillion in student loan debt. (Trump, for his part, has said he will roll out his college affordability plan over the next four weeks.)
It cannot be overstated “how far the needle has evolved to really seriously tackle the root causes and major impacts of our system which essentially requires borrowing for the university,” said Mark Huelsman, senior analyst of policies at Demos, who wrote a influential report pushing for a debt-free college last year. “Even four years ago, when it was clear that this was a political problem that needed to be resolved, you haven’t seen a big, bold reform about it.”
This time on the Democratic side of the race, there was universal agreement among the candidates that students should be able to attend public college at least without going into debt. The notion of a university without debt or tuition fees only really entered the political lexicon a little over a year ago, and it reached Clinton’s acceptance speech. Plus, the topic came up in one of only two times she mentioned Sanders in the speech and the issue where she arguably moved the most in his direction. (The Clinton campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the formal role Sanders would play, if any, in promoting the college affordability plan.)
“The root cause of unity on the issue of debt-free colleges is that it is immensely popular with voters and would be a game-changer in the lives of millions of people. Both candidates knew this and were encouraged to unite around this great idea, ”said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Commission, which helped bring the debt-free university into the mainstream through to his plea. “A year and a half ago hardly any politician was talking about a debt-free university and at this convention we heard Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and a group of budget candidates unite around this great idea. “
During the election campaign, 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 going into debt. Sanders pushed to make public four-year universities free. Clinton has often criticized Sanders’ plan to offer wealthy students, like Donald Trump’s children, a chance to graduate without paying. Sanders argued that in today’s economy, which often requires a degree for decent work, college should be free, just as high school became free and universal when we moved from an agricultural economy. to a more industrial economy.
Earlier this summer, Clinton released a revamped college affordability plan with support from Sanders, which would allow students from families earning $ 125,000 or less to attend college tuition-free and put a moratorium of three. months on student debt so borrowers can get into a manageable situation. repayment plan.
While coming to an agreement on the issue may not have been a huge change politically, for Clinton, making a few adjustments and changing the rhetoric around the Clinton Universities Affordability Plan has allowed him to infuse some of the energy that surrounded Sanders’ original proposal, Huelsman mentioned.
“Clinton’s original plan was the stuff of white papers and Sanders’ original plan was the stuff of stump speeches,” he said. “They realized that any major political reform will first require public understanding.”
Of course, the new plan has some criticism. Some economists worried at the New York Times that the proposal could drive up the cost of college. Supporters of a controversial theory first published by William Bennett, Education Secretary under Ronald Reagan, argue that the increase in the availability of student aid is pushing colleges to raise tuition fees because it there is now more money to pay for them. Still, there is little evidence that public colleges react in this way to more federal aid, possibly because factors such as state funding have a greater influence on their pricing, the left-leaning tendency. Center for American Progress recently noted.
Some have also argued that eliminating tuition fees only go a short way by reducing university costs, which include board and lodging, textbooks and other miscellaneous expenses. Even Huelsman, who said he was excited about Clinton’s plan and the issue was highlighted, said he hoped it would increase the concerns of current campaign borrowers, some of whom are struggling to repay. their debts after attending predatory for-profit colleges or who might benefit from the ability to write off 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 to stay closer to Sanders on the issue. Goldrick-Rab said she hoped Clinton would refine her message to simply say that public colleges and universities should be free, like Sanders, instead of the more nuanced “tuition-free for the middle class and debt-free for all” and confusing that she used in her speech.
For students struggling to afford a degree, our college funding system, which requires students to fill out paperwork to find out what discount they’ll get off the (often relatively high) listed price of a college, may be helpful. disheartening, she said. . Simply stating that the public college would be free could give these students a bigger boost. “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 criticism, Goldrick-Rab said she was delighted to see the notion of a free public university become a big issue in the presidential campaign. “She could really make headway in that direction and it’s huge,” Goldrick-Rab said.