An aggressive push for what's being billed as "debt-free college" has galvanized progressive activists, putting Hillary Clinton in the position of either endorsing an idea that will be controversial or being criticized by liberals as too timid if she does not.
The proposal, which is also energizing Democrats on Capitol Hill, attempts to enshrine a promise that all Americans can attend a public college and get a four-year degree with little tuition cost and while incurring no student debt.
Spurred in part by President Obama’s push for free community college during his State of the Union address earlier this year, more than 60 Democrats in Congress, most notably Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and New York Sen. Charles Schumer, are backing a congressional resolution calling for debt-free college.
One of Clinton’s Democratic rivals, ex-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, has endorsed the idea.
Another Democratic candidate, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has already authored a provision in Congress that would eliminate tuition costs at public colleges, although it falls short of the debt-free proposal.
The Center for American Progress, the think tank founded by Clinton campaign chair John Podesta, has called for a plan to allow students to attend four-year public colleges at little cost initially, although they would have to repay some of the costs through loan-repayment plans. It is modeled after a similar policy that is used in Australia.
Clinton has hinted she is considering these ideas. On a recent stop in Iowa, the former secretary of state suggested college should be as “debt-free as possible.” Her campaign manager Robby Mook has described the concept as one that could appeal to young voters.
Most Republicans in Congress strongly opposed Obama’s initial universal community college plan and are unlikely to support Clinton if she calls for debt-free college.
Clinton is expected to roll out a plan to address student debt and higher education later this year. She is giving a "kickoff speech for campaign on June 13 in which she is expected to offer new details on what proposals she would advocate if elected president.
Her views on debt-free college, as well as her stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, have emerged as early tests for Clinton, who was viewed as insufficiently progressive in 2008 by some in her party. (She has delighted some liberals in the early stages of this race by calling for comprehensive reforms of America's criminal justice and voting laws.)
Clinton is the overwhelming favorite in the Democratic nomination process and would remain so even if she supports TPP and opposes debt-free college. And she will likely try to avoid taking positions that would allow Republicans to paint Clinton as a big-government liberal in the general election.
But the former secretary of state has long talked about addressing issues like student debt, and it has emerged as major concern in the face of rising tuition costs for American students.
Debt-free college would also be the kind of big, galvanizing issue that could help Clinton define her campaign and potentially her presidency, as expanding health insurance was for President Obama.
“Going to college is absolutely essential to getting into the middle class and getting ahead once you're there, but far too often it ends up breaking students' banks,” Schumer said in a statement endorsing the idea.
“When students graduate with loads of debt, the ripple effects are endless; they're less likely to start a business, to buy a house, and to realize their full potential," he added. "When it comes to making college affordable, I'm hopeful that debt-free college is the next big idea."
The resolution backed by Warren and others in Congress is vague, and there is not an unified vision from progressives for exactly how this proposal would work.
The general idea is that students who attend a four-year public college would have their tuition and debt reduced almost to zero through a combination of moves. The federal government would increase its aid to states for higher education, so schools could bring down tuition. Pell Grants would be increased for low-income students, and with lower tuition this money could be spent by students on costs like books. Colleges themselves would be tasked with reducing some of their spending so that it cost less to educate each student.
The liberal think tank Demos has released a plan they say would create debt-free college for students in 26 states at a cost of around $30 billion. They would fund it either through re-allocating existing tax credits and deductions for higher education, or through new taxes and fees on the wealthy and Wall Street.
Only students whose family income (for a family of four) is under $72,000 would be eligible under the Demos plan.
Sanders says his plan would cost $70 billion a year, with the federal government expected to spend $47 billion, leaving the rest to the states. He would fund the federal plan with a tax on stock trades made by hedge funds and other financial institutions.
The idea comes amid a broader debate about higher education in America. Obama has made getting more American students to graduate from college one of his signature issues. He signed into law an increase in Pell Grant funding early in his tenure and has pushed in recent years both the universal community college proposal and a system of accountability for colleges, looking to shame those schools with low graduation rates.
But a bloc of education reformers, including many on the right, have strong reservations about simply expanding college access to more Americans. They instead want to overhaul today’s college system through the use of online-courses and other technology.
The cost of higher education, in this model, would be reduced in part because fewer students would have the experience of living in dorms and having much of their education done through professors in classrooms. Students could tailor coursework more to their individual needs and goals.
“We need to make college fundamentally affordable, not continue to find ways to allow people to afford what is increasingly an expensive education. Proposals that simply make a college debt free in essence give colleges a free pass to continue to increase expenditures because they can escape pricing pressure and taxpayers foot that bill,” said Michael Horn, an education policy expert who co-wrote a book called “Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns.”
Jeb Bush has spoken publicly about reading Horn’s book and strongly embraced online-education both as governor of Florida and at the education think tank he ran until he started his presidential campaign.