The push for “debt-free college” began only last fall. But, politically, this meme has everything: It’s an earnest response to a genuine policy problem, the rise in student debt loads. It captures the dreams and anxieties of millennial voters and their families. And it touches on the wrenching changes underway in a vital American industry — higher ed.
Late last year, a paper from the think tank Demos outlined how more federal support for state universities could allow students, or at least those with modest part-time jobs, to graduate without debt. Long-shot Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders signed on to the idea. Frontrunner Hillary Clinton may do the same; her campaign manager talked up “debt-free college” in a TV interview in May.
Significantly, Elizabeth Warren, who’s now the center of gravity in Democratic policy circles, adopted the issue as her own last week. “Not every college needs to graduate every student debt-free,” Warren said in a comprehensive speech on the subject, but “every kid needs a debt-free option — a strong public university where it’s possible to get a great education without taking on loads of debt.”