Six steps to debt-free college

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The number of debt-free college plans beginning to circulate can be confusing, but the core message is simple: Higher education should be accessible to everyone, regardless of income and without the cost of crippling debt.

The "Debt-Free College Checklist"—unveiled July 16 by the AFT, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Demos—clarifies that goal, declaring that any "debt-free college" proposal should be able to answer "yes!" to each of six checklist questions:

  • Do all undergraduate students have access to debt-free college?
  • Does debt-free college apply to all undergraduate public institutions?
  • Does debt-free college apply to all college costs, not just tuition?
  • Does the debt-free college plan facilitate all students having equal access to high-quality public education by incentivizing investment in instruction and student support services?
  • Does the formula used to calculate "debt-free" avoid academic hardship for students and economic hardship for everyday families? (i.e. low-income students are not forced to hurt their academic performance by working excessive hours while wealthier students study, and middle-class families are not assumed to have savings and disposable cash they do not truly have.)
  • Is aid distributed progressively—investing most in those who may not attend or complete college, or not maximize their participation in the economy after college, due to student debt?

"We have to mitigate the debt that's already due," said AFT President Randi Weingarten at a Debt-Free Checklist briefing during the Netroots Nation 2015 conference in Phoenix. "Why would we incur additional debt? It is paradoxical, and I would argue hypocritical, to say that college is so important, but make it increasingly out of reach for all but those who are the most wealthy."

Research shows that debt suppresses economic activity by preventing people from buying houses and cars, starting families and participating more robustly in the larger economy. It affects retirees still paying debt on early loans, midcareer loans and loans for their children. It deepens the gap between the haves and the have-nots by penalizing those who cannot afford an education without a loan. And student loan debt affects every American by preventing so many people from attending college in the first place, strangling this country's vibrancy in the global marketplace of ideas as well as business.

Halting state disinvestment in public higher education would be a huge step toward remedying this issue, says Weingarten. At the same time, it could help address the soaring use of adjunct faculty. While students are being prevented from attending college, the college experience of those who do attend has been diminished by an increased reliance on underpaid, overworked adjuncts who are not given the resources they need to provide a high-quality education.

"More than three-quarters of American college professors are contingent workers," Weingarten says. "That means they can automatically be fired. It means they're cobbling together a living at four or five colleges, and that they may not have the academic freedom they need to do the work the universities require." Funding colleges, and making attendance debt-free, is essential to preserving the integrity of public higher education.

The Debt-Free Checklist, designed to ensure transparency and clarity in the national dialogue around student debt, is part of the answer. It's a message some politicians are amplifying already: Congress has more than 70 co-sponsors on the Schatz-Schumer-Warren and Grijalva-Ellison-Clark resolutions addressing student debt relief. Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced her debt-relief policy at an AFT event in June, slamming states for cutting higher education funds; demanding universities be held accountable for keeping tuition affordable; and insisting the federal government stop profiting from student loans, fix the Pell Grant program, simplify financial aid applications and enforce existing laws to protect students from unreasonable debt.

Meanwhile, Weingarten points out, "there are people like Scott Walker who are on a path that will add to that debt burden rather than decreasing it. The budget Gov. Walker just signed cut an additional $250 million from the Wisconsin university system, once a crown jewel of American higher education. Jeb Bush did the same in Florida when he was governor."

"Debt-free college is a very, very important goal," says Weingarten. "Yes, it may be bold. But if we really believe that college education is important in this country, then every student must have the ability to access a high-quality, robust college education."

[Virginia Myers]