Hillary Clinton moved left on higher education Wednesday and rolled out an ambitious plan to offer free college to most Americans — a proposal she had been skeptical of — and Sen. Bernard Sanders quickly took the credit.
The Vermont senator, who for months waged a bitter presidential primary fight against Mrs. Clinton, claimed his rival’s college affordability proposal is “the result of the work of the two campaigns,” and hinted that the former first lady wouldn’t have made such a move without his making it a campaign issue and criticizing her for her reticence.
Mrs. Clinton’s plan “says that in America, any family of $125,000 or less will be able to send their kids to college tuition-free,” Mr. Sanders told CNN on Wednesday. “That is a revolutionary breakthrough for the middle class and the working class of this country.”
While Mrs. Clinton has long talked about making college more affordable for the middle class, she’d previously stopped short of embracing the kind of free-college-for-all proposal Mr. Sanders trumpeted during the primary. Her policy rollout Wednesday seems to offer concrete proof that the Sanders candidacy, and the passion it inspired among millions of progressives across the country, has had a tangible impact on Mrs. Clinton’s domestic policy positions.
Over the past 12 months, the notion of debt-free public college, which has long been a goal of the progressive left, slowly has gained traction within the Democratic Party as a whole.
Even President Obama, campaigning with Mrs. Clinton in Charlotte on Tuesday, applauded when his former secretary of state mentioned debt-free college. Mr. Obama has proposed two years of free community college for everyone but hasn’t pursued all-out tuition elimination at four-year colleges.
Liberal leaders say Mr. Sanders should get a great deal of credit for Mrs. Clinton’s evolution on the issue and the movement within the broader Democratic Party.
“The New College Compact being released today is a significant move from Hillary Clinton that deserves to be applauded, along with over 12 million Americans behind Bernie Sanders who helped make it happen,” said Charles Chamberlain, executive director of the progressive PAC Democracy for America, which endorsed Mr. Sanders in the Democratic primary.
“Over the last two years, Democrats have gone from a party fighting for piecemeal student loan reform to a party advancing a big, bold plan for debt-free higher education that now includes tuition-free access to public colleges and universities for 83 percent of all American families,” he said.
In a statement detailing her debt-free college plan, the former first lady said she’d use executive power to halt all student loan repayments for three months. During that time, she said, the federal Education Department will work with borrowers to hammer out affordable repayment options that take into account income and other factors.
Mrs. Clinton also said she’ll eliminate tuition at in-state public colleges and universities for families making up to $125,000 per year, a threshold she says will cover more than 80 percent of all American families.
“American families are drowning in debt caused by ever-rising college costs, and it is imperative that the next president put forward a bold plan to make debt-free college available to all,” Mrs. Clinton said. “My New College Compact will do just that — by making sure that working families can send a child or loved one to college tuition-free, and by giving student debt-holders immediate relief. While Donald Trump offers little more than broken promises to get rich quick, I remain committed to ensuring that a college degree is attainable for anyone in this country with the desire and determination to earn one.”
Mrs. Clinton’s free-college plan would be phased in over four years, the campaign said.
Beginning in 2017, families earning $85,000 or less each year will be eligible to send their child to a four-year public college for free. The threshold will rise by $10,000 each year until reaching the $125,000 figure by 2021.
For Mr. Sanders, the new Clinton plan could give him incentive to hold off on endorsing Mrs. Clinton as he fights for more progressive priorities to be included in both the official Democratic Party platform and his primary foe’s domestic agenda.
“At the end of the day, what I believe is this country faces enormous problems,” Mr. Sanders told CNN. “We need a president, [and] we need a Congress prepared to address those problems, a Congress prepared to take on big-money interests.”