'Debt-Free' College Hits the Congressional Campaigns

Advocates who helped prod Democratic presidential candidates to embrace the concept seek to spread the issue into election drives for the U.S. Senate and House.

July 15, 2016

A progressive political action committee announced this week that multiple Democrats in high-profile Senate races would back calls for debt-free college in the wake of Bernie Sanders’s endorsement of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic presidential nominee.

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a political action committee focused on backing left-leaning policy ideas and candidates, announced that eight Democratic candidates for Senate were getting behind the goal of debt-free college. The debate over free college became a flash point in the presidential primary, and the backing of Democrats in such key races signals that the party will continue to make the issue a prominent one in the fall in a nod to Sanders’s supporters.

“My colleagues and I are working to make debt-free college a reality for millions of working families across the country, because no one should be saddled with a lifetime of debt for pursuing their education,” said Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat.

Incumbent Senator Michael Bennet, a Colorado Democrat, joined Wyden in backing that goal along with Democratic challengers Russ Feingold (Wisconsin), Ted Strickland (Ohio), Maggie Hassan (New Hampshire), Kamala Harris (California), Deborah Ross (North Carolina) and Patty Judge (Iowa). While Sanders campaigned on free college tuition during the primary, Clinton offered instead a “debt-free” college proposal that she argued was more realistic. However, earlier this month Clinton released a proposal calling for tuition-free public college for families earning less than $125,000 by 2021, moving closer to the Sanders position. (Both campaigns came out in favor of free public community college.)

“In the Democratic primary, he won 75 to 80 percent of the millennial vote, and that’s a critical constituency for Hillary to consolidate if she’s to have any hope of winning the general. So I think she went Bernie’s way,” said Morley Winograd, president of the Campaign for Free College Tuition.

However, Winograd said, the issue of college affordability isn’t just a question of which party wins the presidency. What happens at the federal level will to a large extent be determined by what happens in House and Senate races, he said.

The statements issued by Wyden and other candidates specifically referenced debt-free as opposed to tuition-free four-year public colleges. Kait Sweeney, the spokeswoman for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said that’s because the end goal of any campaign is a debt-free college education.

“If debt-free college is the ultimate goal, the way that we get there is important, but it’s open to flexibility,” she said.

The organization is reaching out to candidates in both Senate and House races to push them to publicly back that idea. Sweeney, who also worked on the Sanders campaign, said the group sees the current discussion on college cost as analogous to the health care debate in 2008, when Democratic candidates got behind universal health insurance as a common goal even as specific policy details remained unsettled until after President Obama took office.

On Thursday, Representative Keith Ellison, a Minnesota Democrat, and Representative Mark Pocan, a Wisconsin Democrat, introduced another proposal to address college affordability and student debt with legislation that would give federal matching dollars to states contributing more toward their public university systems.

Andrew Kelly, the director of the American Enterprise Institute Center on Higher Education Reform, said that whether the college affordability discussion is focused on debt or tuition specifically, the idea of free has become the go-to position on the left. Democrats’ college affordability efforts for a long time focused on priorities like more generous funding of Pell Grants and payment protections for students who struggle to pay back student loans, he said.

“As far as college affordability goes, I think that that’s a big change for sure,” Kelly said.

Kelly said it’s become harder to oppose that goal in progressive and Democratic circles, especially if you’re a candidate.

“There’s a hesitancy to critique these free college ideas from within the left for fear of being labeled not progressive enough,” he said. “I do think that politically it might make it difficult for people to compromise.”

Sweeney said her organization sees opportunities to offer and debate specific policies to reach a debt-free goal. That overall discussion is emblematic of the shifting values of the party.

“It is amazing to see how the Democratic Party is being remade in the image of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders and how many big, bold, progressive ideas are being adopted by the party, including debt-free college,” she said.


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