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Student Debt Movement Is Getting Democratic Candidates to Respond

Student debt is now a bona fide campaign issue.

The drumbeat grows louder for candidates to issue a plan to tackle the $1.3 trillion behemoth that is student debt, with former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley issuing his debt-free college solution Wednesday. O’Malley’s proposal comes after Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders issued his own plan, ahead of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s plan promised for later this summer. All the candidates on the Democratic side are going to have to take a stand.

Getting candidates to acknowledge the student debt crisis and coming out with debt-free college plans is a massive coup for grassroots activists across the country. Prior to the new year, when you did an Internet search for the phrase “debt-free college,” the first results were guides on how to graduate from college without debt, including one titled “How a Pack of Gum Helped Me Graduate College Debt-Free” (seriously).

After the stinging defeat of the 2014 elections, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee commissioned a poll to find new ideas to bring out Democratic voters. The winner? Debt-free college. They found that 71 percent of respondents supported the statement, “Provide federal financial assistance to states to make public colleges and universities more affordable, so that all students have access to debt-free college education in America.”

With this in mind, they wrote a white paper in support of debt-free college with Demos. And then several groups joined with PCCC to collect more than 400,000 signatures on a petition in support of House and Senate resolutions supported by members of the Progressive Caucus in the House, and Senators Elizabeth Warren, Charles Schumer and Brian Schatz in the Senate. The resolutions called for debt-free college for all Americans.

Senator Schumer, the future Democratic Senate leader, even said, “I hope debt-free college becomes the next big issue.” Mission accomplished. We now have two plans on the table and another in the works, and that is in addition to President Obama’s plan to pay for two years of community college.

Governor O’Malley’s plan attacks college costs in several ways. He calls for allowing student loans to be refinanced, as well as tying repayment of student loans to a percentage of income after graduation. In order to slow the growing tuition bill, he calls on states to freeze their rates at public universities, and to increase their higher education funding. In the future, his plan calls for tying tuition rates to a percentage of median income, 10% for four-year schools, and 5% at two-year schools. He says these programs would, if implemented, bring down the costs of a college degree significantly, and allow America to have more college graduates.

This is in contrast to Sanders’ plan, which calls for refinancing of current student loans at 2%, and free tuition for students at public universities. To pay for this, Sanders calls for a speculative fee on Wall Street that would raise an estimated $300 billion a year, easily covering the expected $750 billion cost of the program over the next decade.

Clinton will come out with her own plan later this summer, which has all the indications of having learned from Senator Warren, as Clinton has taken to courting Warren’s aides in the drafting of her plan.

In addition to these plans, organizers and advocates, including the Campaign for America’s Future, have proposed their own plans. Our plan is a two-step program that would allow Americans with student debt to pursue their dreams and future students to pique their intellectual curiosity. Part one is a “student debt jubilee,” or a forgiveness of debts. Typical (and Biblical) in the past, a student debt jubilee would forgive the debts of 41 million Americans and allow them to put their money back into the economy in a more productive fashion. Part two is to make college tuition-free in the future, similar to Senator Sanders’ plan.

While the idea of tuition-free college seems new and radical, it is neither. The University of California was tuition-free until the 1960s, and many European countries have eliminated tuition altogether. Denmark even pays students to go to college. The proposals are there, the ability is there, the will is lacking.

Student debt is now a bona fide campaign issue. With two candidates on the record with a plan, and another coming soon, the beat goes on.

Show your solidarity by signing the petition and wearing the “I AM A STUDENT DEBT VOTER” at

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