Call it the influence of the Bernie Bros—or a recognition that the health of American economy rests on having a college-educated workforce. On Wednesday, presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton released the New College Compact, a plan that would make college free for most Americans still working toward a bachelor’s degree and ease student loan repayment for folks who have already graduated.
By 2021, “Families with incomes up to $125,000 will pay no tuition at in-state public colleges and universities, which covers more than 80 percent of families,” according to the plan posted on Clinton’s website. Meanwhile, “families earning $85,000 or less will immediately be able to attend an in-state college or university without paying any tuition.” In response to the student debt crisis, “the plan will also take executive action to give borrowers a three-month moratorium on their federal student loan payments.”
A separate fact sheet reads, “Imagine what is possible in America if we tackle the runaway costs of higher education, make sure that students who start college can finish with a degree, and relieve the crushing burden of student debt.”
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Clinton’s willingness to imagine that possibility may surprise some Americans, given that she has heavily criticized Bernie Sanders’ proposals for free college for everyone. But Colin Seeberger, the strategic campaigns adviser for the education advocacy group The Young Invincibles, told TakePart that given the soaring costs of college and skyrocketing student debt, Clinton’s shift is not surprising.
“We’ve seen tuition and fees go up by nearly 30 percent since the Great Recession, and now the average student walks off a college campus [owing] roughly $30,000 in loans. Young voters are demanding change, and they’re ready to put their votes behind it,” said Seeberger. “According to a poll we conducted recently, more than 60 percent of millennial voters say that combatting student debt will be a major influencer in determining their vote this fall.”
Clinton’s adoption of Sanders’ free college idea—albeit in a more limited fashion, given the $125,000 income cap—underscores the importance of higher education for all Americans, Julie Ajinkya, the vice president of applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, told TakePart.
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“This matters to young people, but it also matters to everyone. We have increasing numbers of adults with some college and no degree who are also interested in finishing their degrees,” Ajinkya said. “Higher ed matters to everyone because we know it’s the ladder to opportunity and the middle class. When college is no longer affordable to everyone, you’re shutting off that opportunity to huge sets of society.”
With total student loan debt topping $1.3 trillion, plenty of Americans are keeping up with the tuition increases and costs of housing by borrowing money. To that end, Natalia Abrams, the executive director of Student Debt Crisis, a Los Angeles–based nonprofit that seeks to reform the way higher education is paid for, applauded Clinton’s focus on people who are still in school as well as folks who are repaying student debt.