WASHINGTON — Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont is calling for zero tuition at public colleges. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley says he will fight to erase debt for college graduates. Hillary Rodham Clinton, at a recent campaign event in Iowa, endorsed the goal of slashing such debt.
Promises to reduce, or even eliminate, the financial burdens of higher education represent the newest frontier in Democrats’ call for taxpayer-sponsored social programs. The anxiety-inducing $1.3 trillion in student debt has quickly become a focus of the 2016 Democratic presidential primary contest.
But while the concept is attracting attention from financially challenged middle-class families, details are scarce on how government should pay for potentially the costliest initiatives since President Obama’s health care overhaul.
The one concrete source of funding comes from Sanders, who proposes a new tax on Wall Street transactions. While that idea draws cheers from his populist fan base, it would be a political long shot for passage in today’s Washington.
Sanders also has produced the only guess at the huge costs: three quarters of a trillion dollars over the first decade.
“This is a politically popular idea, but the solutions are hard and expensive,” said Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a nonpartisan policy and lobbying group in Washington for colleges and universities. “How you pay for it very quickly becomes a seriously complicating issue.”
Meanwhile, the effect of student debt on the national economy — frequently cited on the campaign trail as a key reason to ease the burden — is hard to measure. While politicians often link higher student debt to lower rates of homeownership, entrepreneurship, and retirement savings, no one can point to a reliable figure quantifying the effect of the debt on the overall economy.
“I would say it’s overreaching given the current landscape of research to suggest a link between student debt and a drain on the economy,” said Beth Akers, a Brookings fellow whose research focuses on the economics of higher education.
The squishiness of the candidates’ proposals is giving conservative critics easy ammunition to denounce the ideas as nothing more than liberal talking points.
“This has quickly become a rallying cry for Democrats and advocates and also somewhat of a litmus test for candidates: Are you with us or against us on this?” said Andrew Kelly, director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank based in Washington. “I see why it’s enticing as an election- year slogan, but there are some serious flaws.”
Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, got out front on the issue in 2013 when her first bill as senator called for reducing the interest rates that government charges student borrowers. Since then, goals have become far more sweeping.
Nudged along by liberal Democrats, party members in both the Senate and House are also looking for greater access to debt-free higher education. Warren, along with Senators Brian Schatz of Hawaii, and Chuck Schumer of New York, introduced a nonbinding resolution in April calling for states to reduce tuition at public schools; for the federal government to increase financial aid; and for a program that allows students to refinance loans at lower rates.
But the resolution has no teeth, and it makes no mention of how to pay for any of its lofty goals.
Warren, in an interview Wednesday, said the idea for the resolution is to “push us in the right direction.”
‘This is a politically popular idea, but the solutions are hard and expensive.’
“We should be doing more as a country to leverage our federal dollars to give the schools incentives to drive down costs and to encourage states to invest more in their flagship schools,” Warren said. “We need resources and incentives to bring down costs. This is a one-two punch.”
Representative Katherine Clark, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced a parallel resolution in the House, along with Representatives Raul Grijalva of Arizona and Keith Ellison of Minnesota, all Democrats.
Clark, in an interview, acknowledged that without money attached to the resolution, it is simply a political guidepost, a “first step” in a national conversation.
So far, the resolution has garnered more than 70 cosponsors among Democrats in Congress, including Senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire.
“Our ultimate goal is to make debt-free college central to the 2016 election and signal to the candidates that if they embrace the idea, they won’t be out on a limb,” said Adam Green, cofounder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which lobbied Congress on the resolutions.
Borrowers owe an average of $28,400 in federal and private loans combined, according to the Project on Student Debt by the Institute for College Access & Success.
A May poll by Rasmussen Reports found that Democrats, women, and younger voters were more likely to believe that the government should pay for college. But among the 800 adults surveyed, Americans were nearly evenly split — 43 percent agreed with the government paying for college and 40 percent disagreed.
Marv McMoore Jr., former president of College Democrats of Massachusetts, who graduated from Northeastern University last month, recently moved back home with his parents on Long Island to save money while he attends graduate school at Fordham University in New York City.
The son of an auto mechanic, McMoore is the first in his immediate family to graduate from college. The 21-year-old estimates that he will have $60,000 of student loan debt by the time he receives his master’s degree next year. He views the debt-free college campaign as a way to energize a new generation of voters. “With voter apathy among young folks, this is a way to attract them back to the polls,” McMoore said.
The recent push goes further than President Obama’s proposal in January to make two years of community college free — which the White House estimated would cost the federal government $60 billion over 10 years but which stands little chance of passing. A White House official said the president is encouraged that Congress is engaged in the conversation but would not say whether Obama supports the debt- or tuition-free proposals.
Sanders’ bill, which was introduced last month and has yet to draw supporters in the Senate, Democrat or Republican, would cost $750 billion over 10 years, according to his office.
Under the legislation, two-thirds of the cost of tuition and fees would be borne by the federal government and the rest by the states. The federal share would come from a tax on Wall Street. The bill would also eliminate federal profits on loans, build on existing work-study programs to defray costs, and offer incentives for colleges to keep tuition down.
Making public colleges free, said Sanders, an independent running for the Democratic nomination, is the most efficient way to “create the best-educated workforce that we can have.” But critics say they fear the plans to inject more federal money to ease college debt would only prompt college costs to balloon and leave taxpayers on the hook.
Said Lindsey Burke, a fellow with the conservative Heritage Foundation: “We need to think of policies that actually fix the college cost problem, not take taxpayer dollars filtered through government programs and increased subsidies.”Tracy Jan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @TracyJan.