Alicia Tatone

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.

For Democratic candidates now, the question is not so much whether to support a plan to make college more affordable, but what the right approach is for doing so. The details—whether there is an income cap for eligibility; whether the government covers tuition costs up front before grants; whether there are merit or GPA requirements—will determine who will benefit the most, and who will pay for such a plan.

A subtle tweak from Kamala Harris this past January encapsulates the coming debate over the scope of the party’s proposals. The senator from California, while making formal what many had suspected—that she would be running for president—tweaked her language in a slight but potentially significant way. She was supporting free college, but not just any free college: She was pushing for debt-free college. “I am running to declare education is a fundamental right,” she said, “and we will guarantee that right with universal pre-K and debt-free college.”

What was the difference? Free college is a catchall term for a range of college-affordability plans. There are “tuition-free” programs, where the government—or an institution—covers tuition but not the other expenses, such as books, housing, or food; then there are debt-free college plans, which aim to address all those other costs. Harris was getting specific; and she was doing so with the kind of free-college idea—debt-free—that equity advocates tend to prefer.

Oftentimes, tuition-free models are “last dollar,” which means that the government covers tuition after all other grant aid—such as Pell Grants, which are federal grants for low-income students—is applied. Oftentimes those grants cover the full tuition at community colleges, and students aren’t able to use that money for things like books, housing, or food. These are things that they may ultimately have to take on debt to afford. “Progressive candidates need to be talking about debt-free college instead of just free college, and going beyond tuition for low-income students,” Tiffany Jones, the director of higher-education policy at the Education Trust, an advocacy group for low-income students, told me.

Harris’s declaration was a departure from her language in 2016, when she first introduced a plan, toward the end of her Senate campaign, to make community college tuition-free for all, and four-year college tuition-free for families making less than $140,000 a year; it was even a departure from weeks prior, when she pushed for tuition-free college. Her development signaled, perhaps above all, how the Democratic Party has evolved on college affordability.

The United States has a long history of college-access and -affordability policies—the first Morrill Act, the GI Bill, etc.—that did not provide equitable access or universal affordability, particularly for minorities. Advocates hope that a similar mistake won’t be made with a potential national free-college policy, and that debt-free college becomes the new gold standard.

“That’s the beauty of debt-free college programs: There is a lot of flexibility in there on policy design,” Mark Huelsman, a policy director at Demos, a liberal think tank, told me. A candidate could, for example, propose massively expanding access to the Pell Grant program so that more working- and middle-class students were eligible, and then subsidize education at HBCUs or private institutions that serve large shares of low-income students. A policy could, as Senator Brian Schatz’s Debt-Free College Act does, incentivize states to invest more in free-college programs by providing a one-to-one federal match on state spending.

In recent years, in the absence of ambitious federal efforts to deal with college costs, states, both red and blue, have been introducing their own college-affordability plans. “Anybody who wanted to do anything big or bold on college affordability had to do it at the state level,” Huelsman told me. More than 20 states have adopted free-college models since 2005. New Jersey, West Virginia, and Virginia look to be the next three states to implement free-college plans, Martha Kanter, the executive director of the College Promise Campaign, told me—none of which are debt-free plans.

Debt-free college plans are, by nature, expensive, and states have to run a balanced budget. The federal government doesn’t, which means that it can take on debt to pay for a free-college plan. Some hopefuls, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have proposed taxes to help offset the cost of their plans. Others have been much less specific about how they plan to pay for their proposals. Still, candidates will be hard-pressed to convince Americans that the answer to the college-affordability crisis is for taxpayers to just eat the debt.

That said, a free-college plan is only part of the solution. As Natalia Abrams, the executive director of Student Debt Crisis, an advocacy organization, put it, “While free college is needed and will help curb future college costs and future student debt, it will do nothing to help the 45 million people that are suffering with it right now.” After all, Millennials alone hold more than a trillion dollars in student debt.

Candidates have offered some solutions. Bernie Sanders’s 2017 College for All Act, for example, would have lowered interest rates for student loans and allowed current borrowers to refinance their loans at that lower rate. Warren, Harris, and Gillibrand were among the bill’s co-sponsors.

Additionally, Abrams told me, there is an acute need for consumer protections: Free-college plans should strengthen the repayment programs that are currently available, such as income-based repayment, which allows borrowers to pay a lower, more affordable amount for their loans; and there should be active enforcement of policies like borrower defense to repayment, which allows students to have their loans discharged if they’ve been defrauded and their school was closed.

Whatever the details of the plan, the motive for action is obvious: College has become a prerequisite for most high-paying jobs, and yet college itself is unaffordable for millions. “What happens when you don’t have the full cost of attendance covered?” Jones asked rhetorically. “Students stopping out. Students working more hours. These are things that the research suggests decrease their likelihood of actually completing,” she answered. “We know that has disproportionate impact on low-income students and students of color. Black students in particular.” As a result, many feel—and indeed are—shut out of America’s prosperity.

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