Bernie Sanders has called for tuition-free college. Julián Castro has signaled support for it as well. Elizabeth Warren has pushed, for years, for “debt-free” college. Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand have signed on to legislation that could make college debt-free. Even Amy Klobuchar, who notably shirked “free college for all” during a CNN town hall in February, signed on to a metered free-college proposal last year.
All together, the field seems to have converged on a consensus: A free-college proposal—or an answer about why they don’t have one—is something of a prerequisite for Democratic candidates hoping to challenge Donald Trump in the 2020 election.
The consensus is long in the making: In 2008, the last time there was a large field of Democratic hopefuls, the proposals were more piecemeal. Many candidates pushed tax credits to offset college costs and suggested expanding grants for low-income students. Hillary Clinton suggested a national service program that would allow students to earn up to $10,000, which could be used toward education.
Over time, the ideas grew in ambition. By 2015, in his State of the Union address, President Barack Obama was saying that he wanted two years of community college to be “as free and universal in America as high school is today.” And in the last presidential election, in 2016, Hillary Clinton, who had originally said she believed “in affordable college, but [not] in free college,” was pushed by her primary opponent, Bernie Sanders, to embrace tuition-free college. Her ultimate acceptance of a free-college model ensured that it would be a feature of future Democratic platforms.