Debt-Free College: The New Democratic Mantra

By Katy Murphy
The Oakland Tribune.


The aspiring app developers and entrepreneurs attending the new Make School in San Francisco don’t take out loans to cover tuition.

There is no tuition — at least up front.

Students pay 25 percent of their salaries back to the school in their first two years in the workforce, as well as internship earnings. If they don’t find a job in the tech field — or if their startup fizzles — the school gets nothing.

The two-year Make School, a highly selective startup preparing students to enter the lucrative tech sector, is hardly a typical American college. But its model, billed as “debt-free education,” reflects the collective national angst over student loans and college affordability.

It’s been decades since California abandoned its famed tuition-free promise, but as tuition nationwide spirals upward, stressing middle-income and poor families alike, “debt-free college” has suddenly gone from nostalgic fantasy to political sound bite.

“It’s moving as quickly as any recent issue that I can think of,” said Reid Setzer, policy and legislative affairs analyst for Young Invincibles, a research and advocacy group for millennials based in Washington, D.C.

The issue has crystallized as a central one in the Democratic presidential race, with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley all calling for the federal government to spend hundreds of billions of dollars over the next decade to make college affordable.

In January, President Barack Obama used his State of the Union address to unveil a plan for free community college, prompting lawmakers in nearly a dozen states to introduce legislation to that effect. In April, a group of congressional Democrats, including influential Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, went further. They introduced twin resolutions to make all public universities — not just two-year colleges — debt-free.

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