The push for “debt-free college” began only last fall. But, politically, this meme has everything: It’s an earnest response to a genuine policy problem, the rise in student debt loads. It captures the dreams and anxieties of millennial voters and their families. And it touches on the wrenching changes underway in a vital American industry — higher ed.
Late last year, a paper from the lefty think tank Demos outlined how more federal support for state universities could allow students, or at least those with modest part-time jobs, to graduate without debt. Long-shot Democratic presidential candidates Martin O’Malley and Bernie Sanders signed on to the idea. Frontrunner Hillary Clinton may do the same; her campaign manager talked up “debt-free college” in a TV interview in May.
Significantly, Elizabeth Warren, who’s now the center of gravity in Democratic policy circles, adopted the issue as her own last week. “Not every college needs to graduate every student debt-free,” Warren said in a comprehensive speech on the subject, but “every kid needs a debt-free option — a strong public university where it’s possible to get a great education without taking on loads of debt.”
The usual question is how much this will cost; Sanders goes big, offering a plan that would cost $750 billion over a decade. Fine, it’s a tough math problem. But there’s a less obvious obstacle to a massive reinvestment in traditional state universities: Within higher ed, there’s enormous resistance to letting the federal government plow money into schools that serve students well while denying it to those that don’t. Higher-ed financing policy is like Oprah Winfrey handing out Pontiacs: You get to accept federal money. You get to accept federal money. Everybody gets to accept federal money.
Yet debt-free college advocates don’t just want to shovel more money into the status quo. Warren, a former professor, offers a strikingly harsh critique of the industry she came out of: She criticizes colleges that “get access to federal dollars pretty much no matter the quality or cost of the education that they provide.” In her telling, some schools use the federal financial aid as an excuse to raise tuition, and they run up the tab by keeping their students on campus for more than four years.
Colleges wrap business imperatives in high-minded language. In December, when the Obama administration proposed to rate schools, the scoring criteria reflected legitimate goals: Are schools helping poor students move up the ladder? Can graduates find jobs and pay back their loans? The public colleges that Warren and others hope to shore up would perform well under such standards. Higher-ed lobbyists still howled, insisting that such a system couldn’t capture individual schools’ academic uniqueness.
Bold ideas like debt-free college tend to get watered down: a grant program here, more loans there. That’s a shame, because “debt-free college” isn’t just a slogan; it’s a gateway into a broader debate about financing higher education — a debate that tuition-strapped families sorely need.