Sanders, O’Malley Emphasize College Debt Plans at Democratic Debate

Election 2016
Posted By Derek Johnson on January 26, 2016 at 4:02 pm
Sanders, O’Malley Emphasize College Debt Plans at Democratic Debate
Democratic presidential candidate, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, left, speaks alongside host Chris Cuomo during town hall Democratic debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, Monday, Jan. 25, 2016. Patrick Semansky, AP Images.

On the cusp of the Iowa primary, candidates at the Democratic debate on Monday, January 25, pitched their ambitious college debt plans as a critical component of their overall campaign message.

Each of the three candidates had the stage to themselves as they fielded questions directly from voters in the Town Hall style debate, which was hastily arranged by CNN and the Democratic National Committee. While none of the questions posed by voters directly touched on higher education, Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT) and former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley repeatedly went out of their way to mention their plans for tackling the college loan crisis.

Sanders’ focus is economic justice and global competitiveness

Sanders, in particular, sought to tie his idea to make tuition free at public colleges and universities to his campaign’s theme of economic justice for the lower and middle classes.

“Well, what Democratic Socialism means, to me, is that economic rights, the right to economic security should exist in the United States of America…that there’s something wrong when the rich get richer, and almost everybody else gets poorer. It means there is something wrong, and government should play a role in making sure that all of our kids, regardless of their income, are able to get a higher education,” said Sanders in response to a question about his political worldview.

Later, Sanders forcefully argued that America must alter the way it views the costs and tradeoffs of a free college education if it is to remain competitive on the international stage.

“For 100-plus years, what we have believed public education to be is up to the twelfth grade…Guess what? The world has changed,” said Sanders. “A college degree today is the equivalent of what a high school degree was 50 years ago.”

Later on, Sanders was asked how he planned to pay for some of his more ambitious programs and, again, brought the subject back to higher education.

“Now, how am I going to pay to make certain that public colleges and universities are tuition-free and we substantially lower interest rates on student debt? I pay for that because we’re going to ask Wall Street to pay a tax on speculation,” said Sanders.

O’Malley touts record of keeping tuition costs down

Many of the questioners were identified as current college students, and the candidates appeared acutely aware of this as they worked their higher education plans into answers about sometimes unrelated issues. O’Malley was asked by a 23-year-old Drake University student, Jenna Bishop, what issues young voters like her should care about besides the cost of college. Before responding on the importance of climate change, O’Malley touted his own plan for debt-free college.

“I have put forward a plan for debt-free college within the next five years. And as the one candidate among the three of us with 15 years of executive experience, we went four years in a row in my state without a penny’s increase to college tuition,” said O’Malley.

When another questioner, identified as Des Moines NAACP president Arnold Woods, posed a question about how to best support and reintegrate returning veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, O’Malley proposed a non-military public service option for young Americans that includes increased money for college.

“I believe that will not only allow our kids to go to college in a more affordable way, giving them an increased Pell grant benefit, but I also know that it will do a great deal to tap that goodness within the next generation, and bring it forward, bring their ethic forward,” said O’Malley.

Clinton did not emphasize tuition-free college, this time around

The only candidate who didn’t mention higher education was former New York Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The vast majority of the questions she received from voters were on foreign policy issues or personal scandals like Benghazi or hosting and storing emails on a private server while Secretary of State.

Though she did not touch on it, Clinton offered her own version of “tuition-free” college last year and has made college access and affordability a centerpiece of her message to young voters. Her proposal would cost about $350 billion over ten years and send $175 billion in grant funding to states that can guarantee students will not have to take out loans to pay for tuition at four-year public colleges and universities.

For more political coverage, see our special Election 2016 section.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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