Sharp Exchange at Democratic Debate Highlights Differences Between “Debt-Free” and “Tuition-Free” College Proposals

Election 2016
Posted By Derek Johnson on February 5, 2016 at 3:11 pm
Sharp Exchange at Democratic Debate Highlights Differences Between “Debt-Free” and “Tuition-Free” College Proposals
Presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic Debate in Durham, NH on February 4. David Goldman, AP Images.

During a heated back-and-forth exchange at last night’s Democratic debate in New Hampshire, former U.S. Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton portrayed Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ plan for tuition-free college as unaffordable and one of a series of overly ambitious, unrealistic promises that her opponent won’t be able to keep.

“I also believe in affordable college, but I don’t believe in free college, because every expert that I have talked to says ‘look, how will you ever control the costs?’” said Clinton during her opening statement.

That comment prompted a strong response from Sanders, who argued that subsidizing college for all Americans is not unrealistic, but rather in step with other Western industrialized democracies, as well as necessary to remaining competitive in a global marketplace.

“Now all of the ideas that I’m talking about, they are not radical ideas. Making public colleges and universities tuition-free, that exists in countries all over the world – [it] used to exist in the United States,” said Sanders.

Both Clinton and Sanders have put forth college debt plans that aim to lower the cost of higher education for the average American by funneling large amounts of federal subsidies to states and colleges. These funds would essentially reverse a decades-long trend of disinvestment in higher education at the state level, which many experts believe has greatly contributed to sky-high tuition costs at public colleges and universities. A 2015 report by the left-leaning policy think tank Demos found that higher education budget cuts at the state level were responsible for 79 percent of tuition hikes at public universities from 2001-2011.

Where the two candidates have differed is whether the cost of tuition should be fully covered by the government or dramatically reduced to ensure students are not graduating with large amounts of debt. Clinton’s plan would spend approximately $350 billion over 10 years to support state universities and reduce the interest rate on new and existing student loans, while Sanders’ plan proposes to spend nearly twice that amount: $750 billion over that same timeframe. As with previous debates, Sanders called for a new tax on Wall Street speculation to make up the difference and framed it as an example of his willingness to take on big money corporate interests.

“The middle class bailed out Wall Street in their time of need. Now, it is Wall Street’s time to help the middle class,” said Sanders.

This debate comes at a time when the Democratic Party has largely coalesced around increased federal subsidization of college. Several Republican presidential contenders, however, have called for doing away with the current federal student aid system. Florida Senator Marco Rubio has called the higher education system a “cartel” and likened the Democratic proposals to doubling down on a failed policy that has encouraged bad actors and directly contributed to the rising cost of college. Rubio has argued that reforming the accreditation process and tying student loan payments to a percentage of income is key to breaking up the status quo.

“As history clearly shows, whenever government increases higher education spending, schools happily raise tuition since they know the federal government will foot the bill,” wrote Rubio in a post laying out his higher education plan on last year.

Meanwhile, an ideologically diverse group of higher education experts have recently come out supporting an increased role for Income Share Agreements, which would allow the government, private companies or non-profits to pay for a student’s college in exchange for a small percentage of their future income. Last month, current presidential candidate and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush called for a sweeping overhaul of the higher education system. His plan would re-purpose federal student aid money into savings accounts for every child to pay for college and require graduates to pay back 1-2 percent of their future income over the next 25 years.

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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