Debt free college? It’s possible

By Andrew Tyrrell, Editor-in-Chief

Last Thursday, March 22, Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat from Hawaii, officially announced his Debt-Free College Act. Senator Schatz, along with 32 other members of Congress, hope that the bill can alleviate the financial burden placed on young college students across the country.

Schatz’s plan aims to be more holistic towards the issue of student debt than the more popular tuition free program that Senator Sanders has been pushing since his presidential bid. While Senator Sanders’ plan looked to make college tuition free, Schatz looks at the bigger picture. According to a press release provided to the Torch by Senator Schatz’s office, “[b]eyond tuition and fees, the total cost of attendance—room and board, books and supplies, and other expenses—has forced 44 million Americans to take on debt to cover their financial need. College debt has increased 170 percent since 2006 and now exceeds $1.4 trillion dollars, which is second only to mortgage debt and surpasses even credit card debt.”

The goal of the plan would be to increase state investment in public institutions of higher learning, thereby making it more affordable for students to attend. If signed into law, the bill would match state appropriations towards higher education, dollar for dollar, in exchange for a commitment from the state to cover all costs of attendance without accruing any debt.

Senator Schatz’s reasoning is based on the financial disaster of the early 2000s, when the housing market collapsed. “After the recession, states cut their investment in public education while college costs continued to rise,” Senator Schatz said. “We’re at a point now where the full cost of college is more than twice as much as tuition, which is why solutions to the student debt crisis need to focus on the full cost to students and their families. My bill brings states back to the table and leverages federal dollars to reinvest in public education and help the people who need it most.”

Among one of the biggest barriers added to students saddled with high debt is an inability to enter the housing market. Since 2007 35 percent of the decrease in homeownership is due to student loan debt, according to the Federal Reserve of New York. And of high importance, according to the Pew Research Center half of student borrowers run the risk of defaulting on other bills because of their student loan debt.

Interestingly, Senator Schatz has refused to answer one of the most vital questions: how do we pay for it? In an interview with Ella Nilsen of Vox, Senator Schatz said this on how to pay for the bill: “So, I don’t play the pay-for game. I reject the pay-for game. After the Republicans did the $1.5 trillion in unpaid-for tax cuts, and as we’re doing a bipartisan appropriations bill — which I support — which is also an increase in federal spending [that’s] unpaid for…I just reject the idea that only progressive ideas have to be paid for. We can work on that as we go through the process, but I think it’s a trap.”

One of the supporters of the bill is Massachusetts’ own Elizabeth Warren. The Torch reached out to Senator Warren for comment; her office provided this quote: “Every state in the country, should offer debt-free college pathways for all students. That’s why I’m glad to support the Debt-Free College Act, which leverages federal resources to give states an incentive to increase their investments in public higher education, bring down prices, and make sure Massachusetts students have a chance of making it through college without getting crushed by debt.”

The Debt-Free College Act is certainly ambitious, though its passage may be up in the air given a constantly stagnating Congress. Senator Schatz is not afraid of admonishing those who run on a platform of more affordable college, even himself, saying “shame on all of us for running on this without fixing it.”

The Torch reached out to Senator Schatz’s office for further comment, but did not receive any by the time of publication.

Photo Courtesy: Brian Schatz


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