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The Momentum Builds—Hillary Clinton Releases Debt-Free College Plan

Tamara Draut

Hillary Clinton just released a bold plan to return the United States to debt-free public college for future students and relieve the burden for existing borrowers.

Sec. Clinton’s proposal, the College Compact, is one of the most substantial and progressive plan any policymaker has put forth to combat our student debt crisis, and a giant step toward the goal of debt-free college. Under this plan, millions of families will have access to debt-free public college at both two- and four-year institutions.

For the millions of aspiring students who worry about how they’ll afford college, this would be a life-changing relief. Clinton’s plan will ensure that students from working-class and middle-class families will not have to borrow for tuition, fees and books--enabling them to cover other expenses through Pell Grants, tax credits and modest hours working a part-time job.

A return to debt-free public college would signal to all aspiring future college students, the most diverse our nation has ever seen, that our nation is committed to providing the same opportunity previous generations enjoyed.  

Secretary Clinton’s plan resembles Demos’ recent proposals to return the United States to debt-free college. In 2014, Demos released a proposal for a federal-state partnership to achieve debt-free college, and in a joint paper earlier this year, Demos and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee (PCCC) outlined how all public universities and colleges can achieve debt-free education through federal aid to states, increased aid to students, and innovation to reduce the underlying costs of college.

We were not alone. Both higher education advocates and youth activists have worked tirelessly to put this issue in the national spotlight and build momentum for bold solutions.

Read Senior Policy Analyst Mark Huelsman’s new report on how debt-free college plans like Secretary Clinton’s will help fix our student debt crisis.

As a first-generation college student, I was able to attend a state university and graduate debt-free in 1993. Because tuition was so low, my parents were able to cover tuition and books, while my summer job waiting tables covered my living expenses. Today, tuition at my alma mater, Ohio University, is now double what I paid as state officials have cut funding to Ohio public colleges by 43 percent since 2001.

For generations, policymakers recognized higher education as a necessary public good and adequately funded the public higher education system. I and many other Americans were able to graduate from good schools, establish our careers, and provide decent lives for our families, without the ever looming specter of student debt.

Policymakers believed it was their responsibility to invest in us, and as a result, in our country’s long-term economic growth. But over the past few decades, public officials have strayed from this mission, drastically slashing state spending per-student.

Now, nearly three-in-four graduates take on debt for a degree, and average debt for those who attain a bachelor’s degree has reached $30,000. In the current system, loans are the primary financing mechanism, where they were once a last resort.

By requiring states to reinvest as a precursor of receiving federal aid, Sec. Clinton’s plan works to stem the number one cause of rising college costs and student debt—the collapse in state funding of higher education—and with continual reinvestment, many working- and middle-class families will be able to graduate without taking on debt.

We encourage Congressional leaders and other candidates to build on this plan and others like it, to achieve the goal that every student in the U.S. has a pathway to a high quality, debt-free public college degree.