Policy

Democrats Eye Debt-Free College Push in Next Congress

Lawmakers have been working for months to craft plan

New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, left, and Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz are involved in the working group. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Election Day is still looming, but a group of Democrats has already laid plans to start the next legislative year with a proposal that would allow students to graduate college without debt.

About two dozen congressional Democrats have met for more than a year, with discussions intensifying over the last month. Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has also pushed debt refinancing and free tuition at public universities and congressional Republicans are proposing student-loan tax breaks in a bid to woo millennial voters.

“The goal is to have one final legislative proposal … by the time the next president is sworn in. So it’s on the shelf, ready to go,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which has been working with lawmakers on the issue.

Green hopes this issue can be taken up early in 2017, especially if Clinton is elected and Democrats retake control of the Senate.

“It really matters that the first fight be on something that is bold and inspires the public,” Green said.

Green and others involved in the working group declined to elaborate on details. But ideas that have been broached by Clinton and some Democrats include tax breaks for families earning up to $125,000 to ensure they pay no tuition for in-state public universities, interest rate cuts and refinancing on student loans, and free community colleges. Clinton has also proposed an executive order that would place a three-month moratorium on federal student loan payments.

Starting with no debt

Green’s group has promoted the notion that students should be able to graduate college without debt, which now totals more than $1.3 trillion. Following the 2014 midterm elections, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee surveyed voters and sought input from members, and found the notion of debt-free college had bipartisan appeal and was capable of driving people to the polls.

[Obama’s New Nuance on His Student Loans]

The group found willing partners in both the House and Senate. The Congressional Progressive Caucus included the debt-free college goal in its budget plan. And senators, including New York Democrat Charles E. Schumer who had worked on an “In the Red” student debt package, were eager to address the issue.

In April 2015, lawmakers went on the record by introducing nonbinding resolutions in both chambers supporting the idea. Just over half of Senate Democrats signed on, along with roughly 40 percent of House Democrats.

At the same time, both Clinton and Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders were taking the issue out on the campaign trail.

In August 2015, Clinton endorsed the idea of debt-free college and laid out her plan. That, and a white paper that the PCCC developed with the public policy group Demos, served as guides for the congressional group. Many lawmakers, including President Barack Obama, see student loan restructuring as a way to connect with younger voters.

The white paper endorses increased aid to states, assisting students with high costs and making colleges accountable for rising tuition and other costs. With the legislative groundwork laid, the group began this year focused on writing a bill, Green said.

[Commentary: Increased Focus on Student Loan Crisis Needed]

The group has kept the Clinton campaign looped in on its progress, Green said. A spokeswoman for House Education and the Workforce Committee Democrats said the group has reached out to lawmakers, and they have provided feedback on various ideas. 

The PCCC’s Sarah Badawi and Courtney Hagen have been involved in the group, as well as Maggie Thompson, executive director of Generation Progress, which is backed by the Center for American Progress. Thompson led the group’s “Higher Ed Not Debt” campaign and declined to comment on the working group.

A pivotal role?

About two dozen Democratic lawmakers are involved. Schumer could play a pivotal role since he is poised to become the next Democratic leader and could control the floor if his party retakes the Senate.

It’s not yet clear when or how Schumer would move on the issue in the face of likely opposition from Republicans.

Conservatives have expressed doubt about whether debt-free college proposals actually address the core cost of rising student loan debt.

“None of those proposals, debt-free college included, do anything to put downward pressure on college prices themselves,” said Lindsey Burke, an education fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation. 

Burke said such proposals don’t cause colleges to lower cost, and that more must be done to reform accreditation.

In Congress, Indiana Rep. Luke Messer, chairman of the House Republican Policy Committee, has backed student-loan tax breaks. Among the GOP ideas is excluding from a worker’s income up to $10,000 annually in student loan payments made by his or her employer.

The student loan issue is more nuanced than often publicly discussed, said Mike Hansen, director of the Brookings Institution’s Brown Center on Education Policy. Hansen said those students most at risk for defaulting on loans are those who don’t graduate from college. He also cited political barriers, such as whether state or federal lawmakers would want to spend additional funds on tuition assistance.

But despite barriers, the progressive group is still moving forward on legislation.

“I think we’re pretty close,” Green said. “We will see”

Alan K. Ota contributed to this report.

Contact Bowman at bridgetbowman@rollcall.com and follow her on Twitter @bridgetbhc.

Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call on your iPhone or your Android.