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What Do 2020 Democrats Think of Free College?

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“That’s the beauty of debt-free college programs: There is a lot of flexibility in there on policy design,” Mark Huelsman, a policy director at Demos, a liberal think tank, told me. A candidate could, for example, propose massively expanding access to the Pell Grant program so that more working- and middle-class students were eligible, and then subsidize education at HBCUs or private institutions that serve large shares of low-income students. A policy could, as Senator Brian Schatz’s Debt-Free College Act does, incentivize states to invest more in free-college programs by providing a one-to-one federal match on state spending.

In recent years, in the absence of ambitious federal efforts to deal with college costs, states, both red and blue, have been introducing their own college-affordability plans. “Anybody who wanted to do anything big or bold on college affordability had to do it at the state level,” Huelsman told me. More than 20 states have adopted free-college models since 2005. New Jersey, West Virginia, and Virginia look to be the next three states to implement free-college plans, Martha Kanter, the executive director of the College Promise Campaign, told me—none of which are debt-free plans.

Debt-free college plans are, by nature, expensive, and states have to run a balanced budget. The federal government doesn’t, which means that it can take on debt to pay for a free-college plan. Some hopefuls, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have proposed taxes to help offset the cost of their plans. Others have been much less specific about how they plan to pay for their proposals. Still, candidates will be hard-pressed to convince Americans that the answer to the college-affordability crisis is for taxpayers to just eat the debt.

That said, a free-college plan is only part of the solution. As Natalia Abrams, the executive director of Student Debt Crisis, an advocacy organization, put it, “While free college is needed and will help curb future college costs and future student debt, it will do nothing to help the 45 million people that are suffering with it right now.” After all, Millennials alone hold more than a trillion dollars in student debt.

Candidates have offered some solutions. Bernie Sanders’s 2017 College for All Act, for example, would have lowered interest rates for student loans and allowed current borrowers to refinance their loans at that lower rate. Warren, Harris, and Gillibrand were among the bill’s co-sponsors.

Additionally, Abrams told me, there is an acute need for consumer protections: Free-college plans should strengthen the repayment programs that are currently available, such as income-based repayment, which allows borrowers to pay a lower, more affordable amount for their loans; and there should be active enforcement of policies like borrower defense to repayment, which allows students to have their loans discharged if they’ve been defrauded and their school was closed.

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