Clinton Tacks Left Again with Free Public College Tuition Plan
Policy + Politics

Clinton Tacks Left Again with Free Public College Tuition Plan

© Carlos Barria / Reuters

Presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton on Wednesday continued her aggressive leftward lurch to woo disaffected liberals and young people with two new major plans for addressing rising tuition costs and crippling college debt.

Just a day after narrowly escaping an indictment for her mishandling of top-secret email documents during her four years as secretary of state, Clinton redoubled her effort to reach out to young supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. Sanders made free tuition at publicly financed colleges and universities a cornerstone of his unsuccessful bid for the Democratic nomination.

Related: Hillary’s College Plan—Debt Free College Now, Tax Them When They Make Money

While campaigning against presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump in Atlantic City, Clinton announced plans to eliminate gradually in-state tuition at public colleges and universities for families with incomes of less than $125,000 a year.

Her plan would phase in over several years according to her campaign website and would initially cover students whose families make $85,000 a year or less. The threshold for qualifying for free tuition would rise at a rate of $10,000 a year until reaching $125,000 by 2021.

Clinton also ramped up her campaign pledge to eventually provide “debt free public college” by outlining plans for a three-month moratorium on the repayment of federal student loans – a move that would provide breathing room for students and their parents saddled with debt to restructure or refinance high-interest loans to take advantage of lower interest rates.

The proposed moratorium, first reported by The Washington Post, could potentially be carried out through an executive order if Clinton is elected president. Although details are sketchy, the moratorium plan would cost the federal government an estimated $1 billion, mostly in the loss of interest on federal student loans after the student debt is restructured downward, according to aides.  

Related: Hillary Clinton’s $350 Billion College Tuition Plan Built on Rosy Assumptions

But the larger challenge of overhauling the federal student loan system would require input from Congress, which has wrestled with the problem in the past with only modest results to show for it. Mounting student debt is one of the toughest problems confronting lower and middle-income families, and has contributed to a staggering $1.3 trillion annual student debt.

Over the past year or so, the Obama administration has announced a number of changes to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the standard form for prospective college students seeking federal student aid, and the Revised Pay As You Earn plan, which allows some student loan borrowers to cap their monthly loan payments at 10 percent of their discretionary income.

Clinton has said that under her approach, everyone would be able to enroll in a simplified, “income-based repayment program” so that borrowers would never again have to pay more than 10 percent of what they earn.

“Any remaining debt after you refinance will be forgiven after 10 years,” Clinton said earlier this week in a speech to the National Education Association. “I want everyone to be able to refinance your student loans so you never have to pay more than you can afford and for people who go into public service.”

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Clinton campaigned during the primary to the right of Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist. She frequently dismissed his ideas – including a single-payer, national health insurance plan to replace Obamacare, huge spending on infrastructure projects and free tuition in all public colleges and universities – as pie in the sky and unrealistically expensive.

Sanders, who fell well short of Clinton in the battle for delegates to the Democratic National Convention, has refused to formally endorse Clinton until he extracts major concessions from her on their party’s platform, including on health care, Social Security expansion and higher education.

Clinton’s free tuition proposal outline yesterday appears to have been another major concession to Sanders – who quickly praised his former rival for moving much closer to his ideas for enabling millions of more young people to afford a higher education.

“I want to take this opportunity to applaud Secretary Clinton for the very bold initiative she has just brought forth today for the financing of higher education,” Sanders said in a statement. “This proposal combines some of the strongest ideas she fought for during the campaign with some of the principles that I fought for. The final product is a result of the work of both campaigns.”