The student debt crisis is shaping up to become a major policy battleground in 2016, and Hillary Clinton is contemplating her weapon of choice. At the moment, the former secretary of state has her eyes on a liberal policy idea that could prove lethal to her opponents: debt-free college.
According to Politico, the Clinton camp is in talks with an array of progressive education policy experts as she determines her policy platform, and is interested in "making student loan reform the core of [her] economic agenda." Clinton's team is considering the idea of debt-free college, with a plan that could be even more progressive than the one staked out by presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who introduced a bill in May calling for free tuition at public colleges across the nation.
What is debt-free college? "Debt-free" may sound less promising than "free," but its potency lies in its holistic diagnosis of the student debt crisis. Free tuition is good for students, but by no means guarantees that students won't take on debt while in school. In Sweden, for instance, tuition is free, but the average student still graduates with tens of thousands of dollars worth of debt due to cost of living. A truly debt-free system would carve out a path for students to attend and graduate from a public college or university with little to no debt.
The progressive think tank Demos, which has been a leading voice in the progressive policy conversation and, according to Politico, has been consulted by Clinton's team, has laid out some ideas that could influence the agenda that Clinton unveils. Demos has pitched a plan that argues that debt-free could be defined as "reasonably afforded by [students] working 10 hours a week and enrolled full-time in school" — a number of working hours that is actually associated with higher academic performance for students (20 hours or more, by contrast, tends to come at the expense of academics).
Sound familiar? According to Politico, the details of how to achieve debt-free college, or something approaching that ideal, hasn't yet been determined. But Sen. Elizabeth Warren — who along with more than 60 Democrats in Congress has backed a congressional resolution calling for debt-free college — rolled out her own proposal for debt-free college on Wednesday that should provide some clues on how that could look. Politico reports that Clinton's policy team has reached out to advisers with links to Warren to solicit advice while crafting their proposal.
In her speech, Warren discussed developing a massive funding partnership between the federal government and the states, stringent cost-cutting regulations on public colleges, boosting Pell Grants and a simplification of the financial aid process. She also discussed various measures for relieving the debt burden of current borrowers, something Clinton is also considering for her education plan.
Clinton's interest in the debt-free agenda isn't unique — Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley has endorsed the idea of debt-free college as well. But indications that she's interested in making this issue front and center in her campaign could very well have a huge impact on the overall dynamics of the race. If she does come out in favor of a bold liberal plan, you can expect Republican candidates to use it as a cudgel to decry irresponsible spending. But you can also expect many young Americans to embrace the idea of debt-free college — and commit to helping her win the White House.