‘Free college’ plans abound among Democratic presidential candidates, but the devil is in the details

With the student debt crisis ballooning, virtually all of the declared Democratic presidential candidates have embraced “free college” plans, but the wide range of potential policy prescriptions demonstrates the complexity of the issue, The Atlantic reports.

“‘Free college’ is a catchall term for a range of college-affordability plans,” The Atlantic notes, including “tuition-free” programs, in which the school or government covers tuition but no other expenses, and “debt-free” programs, which aim to ensure that all expenses are covered. And within those broad categories, there are variations related to income caps for eligibility, merit requirements, and when government coverage kicks in (e.g., before or after Pell Grants).

Harris’s evolution reflects broader change in the party

In January, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) announced her support for debt-free college, a step beyond a statement earlier in the month supporting tuition-free college for all. During her 2016 campaign for Senate, her proposal was more modest: tuition-free community college for all and tuition-free four-year college for families with annual incomes below $140,000.

VIDEO: How Georgetown works to make college accessible and affordable >

These changes in Harris’s position are in line with the Democratic party’s significant evolution on the issue of college affordability in the last decade-plus. In 2008, candidates offered “piecemeal” proposals relying on tax credits, expansion of grant eligibility, and national service to offset costs. President Barack Obama expressed support for free community college in 2015, and during the 2016 presidential campaign Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) endorsed tuition-free college, a position Hillary Clinton eventually adopted, as well.

In the 2020 race, virtually all of the declared Democratic candidates have expressed support for free college, in some cases as co-sponsors of debt-free college legislation.

‘Progressive candidates need to be talking about debt-free college’

Many advocates are encouraging candidates to embrace debt-free college, specifically, noting that tuition-free programs can still saddle students–especially lower-income students–with significant debt as they seek to cover living expenses.

VIDEO: “Free college could make things more equitable, or it could further inequality.” >

“There is a lot of flexibility on policy design” when it comes to the debt-free approach, according to Mark Huelsman, policy director of the liberal think tank Demos. For example, the federal government could provide incentives to state governments to invest in debt-free programs, or it could combine expansion of Pell Grant eligibility with subsidization of debt-free programs at HBCUs and other schools that support large numbers of low-income students, The Atlantic notes.

Addressing the existing student debt crisis

Even as they’re discussing free college for future students, Democratic presidential candidates are also proposing ways to address the existing education debt crisis faced by 45 million people.

In 2017, Sanders authored—and a number of other candidates in the Senate co-sponsored—legislation that would have reduced student debt rates and allowed current debt-holders to refinance at lower rates. Other potential solutions include income-based repayment, in which borrowers repay lower amounts according to their income, and relief for borrowers who have been defrauded by their schools.

The Atlantic
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