Six steps to debt-free college

Do all undergraduate students have access to debt-free college? Check!
Does debt-free college apply to all undergraduate public institutions? Check!

The Debt-Free College Checklist could help make it so.

Launched on July 16 by the AFT, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Demos during the Netroots Nation 2015 conference in Phoenix, the checklist of six questions puts a fine point on our belief—that higher education should be accessible to everyone, regardless of income, and without destroying their lives with crippling debt – and helps clarify an issue that is moving fast, with politicians and policymakers beginning to formulate the ways in which we can address student debt and begin to rein it in.

The checklist declares that any worthwhile “debt-free college” plan should answer, “Yes!” to the following questions:

  • Do all undergraduate students have access to debt-free college?
  • Does debt-free college apply to allundergraduate 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?

Remember, student debt is at $1.3 trillion and climbing. It’s got to stop.

“We have to mitigate the debt that is already due,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten during a briefing about the checklist. “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.”

While we’re making lists, here’s one that outlines the mess student debt can leave behind:

  • Students who can’t afford their loan payments wind up dropping out without having earned a degree. They get: No credential. Loads of debt.
  • Graduates have loan payments so high they can’t afford to buy a home, purchase a car, or start a family.
  • Graduates choose jobs based on earn-quick salaries to pay off loans, rather than public service jobs or more personally satisfying careers that may start off financially slow, but catch up later.
  • The U.S. economy is strangled by limitations set in place by debt-plagued people who can’t fully participate, can’t start new businesses, can’t support their own families, and wind up on federal assistance or worse.

And while we’re at it, take a look at how the divestment in public education is hitting the quality of the higher education experience in general. The squeeze on public university budgets is creating an enormous adjunct and contingent workforce that is underpaid and overworked, says Weingarten. “More than three quarters of American college professors are contingent,” she says. “That means they can automatically be fired. It means they’re cobbling together a living at four or five colleges. 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.

How to fix this? We have a few ideas.

  • Make states fund higher ed, instead of slashing funds from their budgets.
  • Incentivize and assist colleges as they try to keep tuition down.
  • Prevent the federal government from profiting off student loan interest.
  • Make more Pell grants available, with fewer hoops for the program to jump through for renewal.
  • Simplify financial aid applications.
  • Protect students by enforcing laws against predatory lenders.

It is likely that legislators will pay close attention to the debt-free checklist: more than 70 co-sponsors have already signed on to great legislation like the Schatz-Schumer-Warren and Grijalva-Ellison-Clark resolutions, designed to relieve student debt, and presidential candidates are including affordable higher ed in their campaigns.

“The devil is in the details,” said PCCC co-founder Adam Green. “This checklist is aimed at making sure there are clear expectations.”