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Student Debt Movement Is Getting Democratic Candidates To Respond

While the idea of tuition-free college seems new and radical, it is neither. (Photo: I Am a Student Debt Voter)

The pressure is increasing on presidential candidates to propose a plan to tackle the $1.3 trillion behemoth that is student debt. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley issued his debt-free college solution Wednesday. O’Malley’s proposal comes after Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders issued his own plan, and ahead of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s plan later this summer. All the candidates on the Democratic side are going to have to take a stand.

Getting candidates to acknowledge the student debt crisis and coming out with debt-free college plans is a massive coup for grassroots activists across the country. Prior to the new year, when you did an Internet search for the phrase “debt-free college,” the first results were guides on how to graduate from college without debt, including one titled “How a Pack of Gum Helped Me Graduate College Debt-Free” (seriously).

After the stinging defeat congressional Democrats suffered in the 2014 elections, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee commissioned a poll to find new ideas to bring out Democratic voters. The winner? Debt-free college. They found that 71 percent of respondents supported the statement, “Provide federal financial assistance to states to make public colleges and universities more affordable, so that all students have access to debt-free college education in America.”

With this in mind, PCCC wrote a white paper in support of debt-free college with Demos, and commissioned a
petition signed by 400,000 people that was eventually picked up by the Congressional Progressive Caucus in the House, and by Democrats Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and Brian Schatz (Hawaii) in the Senate, where bills to create a debt-free college plan were submitted.

Schumer, a likely future Democratic Senate leader, even said, “I hope debt-free college becomes the next big issue.”

Mission accomplished. We now have two plans on the table and another in the works, and that doesn’t include President Obama’s plan to pay for community college.

Governor O’Malley’s plan attacks college costs in several ways. He calls for allowing student loans to be refinanced, as well as tying repayment of student loans to a percentage of income after graduation. In order to slow the growth of tuition bills, he calls on states to freeze their rates at public universities, and to increase their higher education funding. In the future, his plan calls for tying tuition rates to a percentage of median income – 10 percent for four-year schools, and 5 percent at two-year schools. He says these programs would, if implemented, bring down the costs of a college degree significantly, and allow America to have more college graduates.

This is in contrast to Sanders’ plan, which calls for refinancing current student loans at 2 percent, and free tuition for students at public universities. To pay for this, Sanders calls for a speculative fee on Wall Street that would raise an estimated $300 billion a year, easily covering the expected $750 billion cost of the program over the next decade.

Clinton will come out with her own plan later this summer, which has all the indications of being supported by Senator Warren, as Clinton has taken to courting Warren’s aides in the drafting of her plan.

In addition to these plans, organizers and advocates, including the Campaign for America’s Future, have proposed their own plans. Our two-fold plan would free Americans with current student debt to pursue their dreams and allow future students to pique their intellectual curiosity. Part one is a “student debt jubilee,” or a forgiveness of debts. Based on a Biblical tradition of giving the indebted a fresh start, a student debt jubilee would forgive the debts of 41 million Americans and allow them to put their money back into the economy in a more productive fashion. Part two would make college tuition-free in the future, similar to Senator Sanders’ plan.

While the idea of tuition-free college seems new and radical, it is neither. The University of California was tuition-free until the 1960s, the City University of New York was for part of the 1970s, and many European countries have eliminated tuition altogether. Denmark even pays students to go to college. The proposals are there, the ability is there; the political will is what’s lacking.

Nonetheless, with two Democratic candidates on the record with a plan, and another coming soon, student debt is now a bona fide campaign issue.

You can show your solidarity by signing the petition and wearing the “I AM A STUDENT DEBT VOTER” t-shirt at

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Richard Long

Richard Long is an intern at the Campaign for America's Future.

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