The Coming of Debt-Free College, at Least as a Campaign Issue

Many politicians now running for president are proposing some version of debt-free college. In theory, so it goes, if we elect one of these people to office Americans would be able to graduate from college or trade school with no debt at all, the way it worked for most people in the middle of the last century.

Can it happen? It’s hard to tell, but the fact that it’s coming up at all is probably a positive development.

According to this piece at Inside Higher Ed:

Much of the inspiration for the debt-free college plan has come from a Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Demospolicy paper that sketches out the concept of making public higher education debt-free across the country.

The idea has already caught on with [Hillary] Clinton’s potential and declared rivals in the Democratic nominating contest. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont Independent, who is running for president, has proposed an $18 billion federal program to make the first two years of public higher education free. And former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, a likely contender, has also backed the idea.

Such politicians are vaguely in favor of the idea. How to implement it is a little unclear.

The debt-free college plan, as outlined in the Demos paper, is thin on details. But the basic idea is that the federal government would reward states that increase spending on higher education, reducing the need for students to take out loans, and also boost need-based aid programs like the Pell Grant.

This is all very good, but it wouldn’t ensure no one would have debt; it would just encourage more public spending on higher education, which probably means students would have to pay less.

Bernie Sanders has pitched the idea of tuition free public college for all. Which plan would be cheaper for students and families is debatable, however. Critics point out that students in Sweden, which already has free tuition, often have quite high student loan debt anyway, due to living expenses. But then “debt free” could just mean no student loans for graduates. Perhaps the parents would still have to pay dearly for college education.

No candidate has released a policy document explaining how no-debt college would work out. Even the candidates so eager to talk about their support for it can’t define what it is, precisely, or how to pay for it.

Republicans are not so excited about the idea. Chris Christie has said that debt free college is “wrong” (swell guy, isn’t he? He may have just meant “a bad idea” rather than “immoral,” but still). The other, more important, candidates have remained silent on the issue.

But it’s worth a shot as a policy initiative. Many students, graduates, and dropouts spend their early adult lives saddled with gigantic and difficult to manage college debt. Democratic candidates talking about college without debt, and proposing different ideas about how to make that happen, might be a good way to start a conversation about how to finally get college costs under control.

We’re probably going to have to do something more significant than just having the “federal government reward states that increase spending on higher education,” however.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer