Hillary Clinton outlined her plan to nearly eliminate student debt on Monday at a town hall meeting in New Hampshire—joining two of her opponents in the Democratic primary and a growing activist push to make college debt a central issue of the presidential campaign.
Dubbed the “New College Compact,” Clinton’s plan contains several different approaches to reducing student debt, which now averages $30,000 per student each year. But the central feature is expanded federal aid to states that guarantee “no-loan” tuition at public four-year universities. The think tank Demos and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee also made increased federal aid to states a central feature of their recent push for “debt-free college.”
Clinton also adopted a proposal pushed by Elizabeth Warren in the Senate which would allow students who already have student debt to refinance it at lower rates. Other features of Clinton’s “New College Compact” would give additional grants to states that offer child care services to students, along with simplifying financial aid applications and forcing colleges to pick up part of the tab when students default on their debt.
Students would be required to work or contribute community service for 10 hours per week in order to qualify, and their parents would still need to take out loans based on their income ability.
Overall, Clinton estimates the plan would cost $350 billion over 10 years; she would close unspecified tax loopholes to pay for it. (An anonymous top Clinton aide told the Washington Post that Clinton would reinstate Reagan-era cuts on itemized tax deductions for the wealthy). Warren would similarly re-institute the Buffet Rule to pay for her refinancing proposal, while Sanders proposed a financial transactions tax to fund his college debt plan.
Aside from the policy merits, Clinton clearly believes that an aggressive plan to ameliorate current and future student debt will help draw a contrast with her Republican opponent in the general election. She suggested as much during her Monday town hall. “If you’re going to hear people in this campaign talk to you about improving the economy, helping incomes rise, then ask them what they’re going to do to make college affordable and begin to deal with the debt burden that is holding too many Americans back,” she said.
Two of her opponents in the Democratic primary, Sanders and Martin O’Malley, have plans that would also dramatically reduce or eliminate college debt at public institutions. O’Malley would also increase federal aid to states and require that public university tuitions be tied directly to statewide median incomes.
Sanders would also use federal aid to “eliminate” tuition at public universities, sending $47 billion annually to the states to cover two-thirds of public tuition costs, while states pick up the remainder.
Some activists criticized Sanders plan for not covering room and board, books, and other expenses. Clinton’s doesn’t explicitly do that, though she says that since tuition fees will be reduced by her federal aid plan, students can use Pell Grants to cover non-tuition expenses. Presumably this would also be the case if Sanders’ version of debt-free college was enacted.
Overall, activists who have long been pushing debt-free college as a necessary element of the 2016 campaign were pleased. “The center of gravity on higher education has shifted from tinkering with interest rates to making college debt free—and Clinton’s bold proposal is emblematic of the rising economic populist tide in American politics,” said PCCC co-founder Adam Green in a statement.
Natalia Abrams of Student Debt Crisis said her group is “gratified that all three major Democratic presidential candidates have committed to addressing student debt and lowering the cost of higher education.” Student Debt Crisis has been fighting for an outright cancellation of student debt, however, and Abrams added that “we are discouraged by the lack of attention given to relieve existing borrowers from their crippling student loan debt.”