Debt-free college, a concept that seemed wildly improbable just months ago, is quickly becoming a centerpiece of the 2016 presidential campaign.
Already, two Democratic candidates have endorsed some version of the idea. Hillary Clinton, who will officially open her campaign this weekend, has hinted that she may embrace it, too.
The concept has obvious political appeal: It resonates with Millennials, a key voting bloc for Democrats. And it appeals to middle-class parents, who are increasingly anxious about the cost of college. If the concept makes it into the Democratic platform, it would be one of the boldest higher-education proposals that the party has offered in years.
That's true even though the definition of "debt-free college" depends on whom you ask.
"It means different things to different people," said Sandy Baum, an economist and senior fellow at the Urban Institute, and "most people proposing it are not at all specific about what it means."
Under any definition, it wouldn’t be cheap. Making public college tuition-free, as Sen. Bernard Sanders of Vermont, a Clinton rival, has proposed, would cost $70 billion a year. Covering all the costs of college, including books and fees, would be even more costly. Even targeted proposals that focus benefits on needier students would cost around $30 billion a year.
Given the high price tag, some skeptics question whether making college debt-free for everyone makes sense. They point out that students who graduate from public colleges generally have manageable amounts of debt — around $25,000, according to the College Board — and reap large returns on their investments.
"Student debt is not a problem for the country or students if you’re borrowing reasonable amounts of money," said Donald E. Heller, dean of the college of education at Michigan State University. "It doesn’t hurt borrowers to have a little skin in the game."
A Liberal Litmus Test
The push for debt-free college began last September, when Demos, a liberal think tank, issued a plan that would make college debt-free for low- and middle-income families in some states, at a cost of around $30 billion. Four months later the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, or PCCC, began a campaign to press the Democratic candidates to back the idea.
The plan got some traction in April, when lawmakers in both chambers of Congress offered resolutions "supporting efforts to ensure that students have access to debt-free higher education." The next day, Martin O’Malley, a former governor of Maryland and another Democratic presidential candidate, endorsed the idea in an opinion essay in The Washington Post, arguing that "our ultimate goal must be for every student — most especially low-income and middle-class students — to be able to go to college debt-free."
Then, in May, Mr. Sanders introduced his bill to eliminate undergraduate tuition altogether at public institutions by taxing transactions in the financial sector and compelling states to provide matching funds.
Now the big question is how far Mrs. Clinton will go in embracing the plan. With the Democratic front-runner set to unveil some policy priorities this weekend, progressives are ramping up the pressure. On Wednesday the PCCC held a news conference on Capitol Hill to deliver 400,000 petition signatures in favor of debt-free college to congressional supporters. Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a high-ranking Democrat who spoke at the event, said he hoped debt-free college would be "the next big idea."
"It’s backwards and wrong that the ticket to getting into the middle class costs so much," he said.
Senator Schumer and the other lawmakers who spoke at the event framed student debt as a barrier to economic mobility and a drag on economic growth. They argued that student loans prevent college graduates from buying homes or starting businesses, and discourage some low-income students from attending college altogether.
"If we’re serious about wanting people to pursue higher ed, we can’t put them on the brink of bankruptcy every time they graduate," said Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, sponsor of the Senate resolution.
Mrs. Clinton hasn’t committed to the idea yet, but she has dropped hints she might include it in her presidential platform. At a stop in Iowa in April, she said that college should be as "debt-free as possible." The following month, her campaign manager, Robby Mook, said voters were looking for "a champion for everyday people," adding that "for young people, that’s debt-free college."
So far, no Republican candidates have backed the idea. They have promised instead to bring down the cost of college through technology and alternative credentialing. At an event in Washington on Tuesday, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate education committee, dismissed debt-free college as political pandering.
"Every political season politicians run around saying, We’re going to solve your student-loan problem, thinking they’ll get votes," he said. "It’s that kind of talk that makes students think they can’t afford college."
The biggest barrier to debt-free college could be defining what it means. Is it tuition with no debt? Cost of attendance with no debt? For whom? Community-college students? Students at public four-year institutions? What about private colleges? And should there be an income cutoff?
So far, the only concrete proposals have come from Mr. Sanders, Demos, and Young Invincibles, an advocacy group representing young adults. Mr. Sanders’s plan would cover tuition only. The plans from Demos and Young Invincibles would cover the cost of attendance, too, but at a lower cost relative to the Sanders plan.
Conservative critics say any of the plans would simply shift the burden of paying for college from students to taxpayers, while doing nothing to bend the cost curve.
"Policy needs to get to the root of the college-cost problem," said Lindsey Burke, an education fellow at the Heritage Foundation. "Such schemes put zero downward pressure on college prices."
Mr. Heller and Ms. Baum argue that federal resources should be focused on the students who are more likely to be debt-averse or to borrow large amounts: low- and moderate-income borrowers.
"I’d rather see larger subsidies go to poorer students than spread across the income ladder," said Mr. Heller, Michigan State’s education dean. The focus, he said, should be on making student debt manageable, not eliminating it altogether.
In other words, "affordability doesn’t necessarily end up at zero," as Ted Mitchell, the under secretary of education, put it at Tuesday’s event.
For now, debt-free college seems unlikely to move from Democratic policy platforms into actual legislation. Asked if there were plans to introduce a bill, Senator Schatz said lawmakers were focused on building grass-roots support for the idea. He acknowledged that any such bill would be unlikely to pass in a Republican-controlled Congress.
"Right now, it’s an outside-in strategy," he said at Wednesday’s event. "Today is about citizen mobilization."
Congressional Democrats are also focusing on putting pressure on the presidential candidates, said Rep. Keith Ellison of Minnesota, a sponsor of the House resolution.
"Politicians see the light when they feel the heat," he said, "and these 400,000 signatures are a whole lot of heat."