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"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," wrote columnist Isaiah Poole. (Photo: Matt Johnson/flickr/cc)

Embracing Sanders' Higher-Ed Call, Clinton Expands Debt-Free College Plan

Clinton's new proposals on college affordability are 'a result of the work of both campaigns'

Deirdre Fulton

Hillary Clinton's newly revised college affordability plan, unveiled Wednesday, clearly bears the stamp of Bernie Sanders and his youth-powered movement—so much so that the senator from Vermont publicly praised it as "very bold initiative" that will "revolutionize the funding of higher education in America."

With the addition of three new proposals, Clinton's higher education plan now calls for:

  • the elimination of tuition at in-state colleges and universities for 83 percent of U.S. families;
  • a three-month moratorium on the repayment of federal student loans in order to facilitate debt restructuring; and
  • restoration of year-round Pell Grants, which would help students get funding for summer classes.

According to the Huffington Post, "Clinton's new proposals move her beyond previous statements that she would try to make college 'as debt-free as possible' and toward making 'debt-free college available to all.'"

While the plan stops short of Sanders' call for universal free tuition, the senator himself said Wednesday that it "combines some of the strongest ideas she fought for during the campaign with some of the principles that I fought for. The final product is a result of the work of both campaigns."

As such, observers were swift to credit Sanders and his supporters for catapulting this issue to the forefront of the campaign. "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," wrote columnist Isaiah Poole at the Campaign for America's Future blog.

Indeed, "Clinton's plan is a sign that his vision has triumphed," Libby Nelson declared at Vox:

Until very recently, the consensus in the Democratic Party was that students should pay for part of their own education, even if they needed loans to do so, because they’d reap the lifelong benefits of earning a college degree. The role of the federal government was to help them afford it, through grants to the poorest students and loans to everyone else.

Sanders upended that consensus. Instead of viewing a college degree as something that ultimately benefits individuals, and that the federal government should help to finance, he saw higher education as something that should be free and accessible to everyone — just as K-12 education is today.

As public policy organization Demos noted in its response to the news, "If enacted, this plan would return the U.S. to a system where students could work their way through school again, and it represents a major shift back to the notion of higher education as a public good."

With Sanders still holding out on endorsing Clinton, the move has explicitly political motivations. The New York Times reports:

Mrs. Clinton's team is eager to attract the young supporters that flocked to Mr. Sanders in the nominating fight. A campaign aide noted that during a meeting last month with Mr. Sanders, the two discussed the merits of their plans to make college more affordable and the importance of featuring the issue prominently in the general election.

And as CNBC put it, the shift "points to a trend of the Democratic party adopting elements of the Vermont Senator's progressive platform, which attracted a groundswell of support."

As Common Dreams reported last week, the Democratic National Committee's draft 2016 platform includes other nods to Sanders, including calls for an end to the death penalty, a $15 minimum wage, the establishment of a postal banking system, broad marijuana law reform, and elimination of tax breaks for Big Oil. 

On other issues, like trade and fracking, the party continues to snub progressives.

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