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Reducing student debt and making public college tuition debt-free has entered the political mainstream—at least among the field of Democratic presidential hopefuls.

The leading three candidates at Tuesday night's CNN Democratic presidential debate—Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O'Malley—all said they want to make tuition at public colleges and universities debt-free. They also all gave forceful endorsements to reducing the loan burden on students.

"The hardest thing about going to college should not be paying for it," Clinton said, quoting a student she said she spoke to. Clinton promised to allow U.S. students with outstanding loans to refinance at a low interest rate. "That will save thousands of dollars for people who are now struggling under this cumbersome, burdensome college debt," she said.

Sanders called student debt "a major crisis in this country." He said he plans to raise taxes on Wall Street speculation to reduce interest rates on student loans. "I want Wall Street now to help kids in this country go to college," he said.


Martin O'Malley, meanwhile, vowed to "make college a debt-free option for all of our families, instead of settling our kids with a lifetime of crushing debt."

These proposals—especially making all public colleges tuition-free—veer to the left of ideas proposed in the 2008 election. Then-Senator Barack Obama called for a tax credit for tuition in exchange for community service. The Democratic plans proposed tonight make Obama 2008 seem like a conservative by comparison.

In part, the proposed policy shift is a result of the dramatic spike in student debt. The total debt held by U.S students has tripled over the past decade, and the number of student debtors—43 million as of last year—rose 92% between 2004 and 2014, according to data from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.


There are some subtle differences between the plans put forth by Sanders and Clinton. For example, Sanders would make college tuition free for four-year public colleges and universities. Clinton, meanwhile, would make tuition debt-free, but stipulates that students who can afford to pay without taking out loans would still be expected to pay some tuition. Her proposed program would cost $350 million over 10 years, which she hopes to pay for by reducing tax loopholes for high-income earners. In the past, as a debate moderator noted tonight, she's criticized Sanders' plan as "making college free for Donald Trump's kids."

"I think we don't need a complicated system," Sanders said Tuesday night.

Clinton also specifically said she thought students should be working in return. "Maybe it's because I worked when I went through college; I worked when I went through law school… I would like students to work 10 hours a week in order to make it possible for them to afford their education," Clinton said.


Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.