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Hillary Clinton Argues The Election Is A Choice About Paying For Her College Debt Plan

Clinton's student debt plan would reward public colleges that decelerate tuition increases and refinance existing loans — but it's an expensive proposal. She said Monday her winning would be a mandate for passing the tax changes Obama has been unable to.

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EXETER, N.H. — One week into her presidential bid, Hillary Clinton promised a small crowd in new Hampshire that this campaign, her second time around, would be done her way — grounded in policies based on the “real, daily lives and experiences” of the voters she would meet along the way.

The first item on her list that day was student loan debt.

“We have to do more for young people,” said Clinton. Americans are still paying off about $1.2 trillion in education costs. That debt, she said, interferes in all things — “taking certain jobs, buying a house, even getting married, and certainly starting businesses.”

Four months later, on Monday afternoon, Clinton returned to New Hampshire, the state with the highest student debt, to outline her proposal on that very issue.

The Democrat has already released other parts of her policy agenda, including ideas to raise middle-class wages and encourage small businesses. Her plan on college affordability and student debt relief is easily the most detailed and comprehensive so far put forward by the campaign.

On Monday, Clinton framed the issue as directly tied to the other initiatives of her campaign: Reducing student debt, said Clinton, is “one of the most important ways we can ease the burdens on families — and one of the single biggest ways we can actually raise incomes.”

At a high school atrium here in the town of Exeter, Clinton introduced a crowd of 600 voters, according to a campaign estimate, to what she calls the “New College Compact” — her plan to ease the financial burdens of higher education, for future and former students, and make college more affordable, through $350 billion in new federal spending over a 10-year period.

Clinton said her plan requires a contribution from every party involved: She would push states to invest more in higher education, colleges to perform at higher levels, and students to make their own contribution by working 10 hours a week.

“Everyone is going to have to step up. We can’t fix the problem of rising cost and rising student debt just by throwing money at the problem,” said Clinton. “That’s not how America works.”

The program is designed to operate on dual tiers, targeting both future students and those already working to settle college loans.

“Cost won’t be a barrier and debt won’t hold you back under my plan,” Clinton told reporters after the town hall.

“I am emphasizing the two parts to this compact. No family and no student should have to borrow to pay tuition at a public college or university. And everyone who has student debt should be able to refinance it at lower rates.”

Clinton would put most of the funding, about $200 billion, into a nationwide incentive system that, according to the campaign, would enable undergraduates to attend a four-year public institution without taking out their own loans, or attend a community college tuition-free. The plan would offer federal funds to states that promise to cut student costs, slow the growth of tuition, and increase spending on higher education.

This part of the plan would also allow students to use their Pell Grants on living expenses, and expand the AmeriCorps service program, which helps participants repay their loans, from 75,000 members to 250,000.

The New College Compact would direct the remaining money, $150 billion, toward people already paying off student debt. An estimated 25 million people would be able to refinance their loans, both federal and private, at lower interest rates, Clinton said. Under the plan, every student would be eligible to enroll in a program limiting payments to 10% of their income, and forgiving any remaining debt after 20 years.

And how to pay for it all?

Clinton did not address the question during her town hall, except to say, “This is my plan and I know it’s ambitious. But I think we should be ambitious, because it’s achievable.”

Her aides have said she would cap itemized tax deductions, such as charitable contributions, for wealthy families at 28%. President Obama has proposed the same limits, also aimed at high-income earners, without success in his annual budgets.

Clinton’s student loan plan depends almost entirely on support from Congress, where Republicans now control both chambers. Lawmakers have yet to vote on Obama’s $60 billion proposal for free community college, unveiled in January of this year.

Clinton, asked about the itemized deductions measure after her town hall, said she intended to put the New College Compact at the fore of her campaign — and enter the White House with a mandate to fund the plan.

“That’s why you have a campaign,” Clinton said. "It’s gonna be at the center of my campaign."

The limits on deductions, she added, would mirror the tax code under President Ronald Reagan. (The Obama administration has made the same point.) Republicans, she said, would “have to answer to the American people why they don’t want to make college more affordable and why they don’t want to refinance college debt.”

“This has to be a choice,” she said. “We’re setting up the proposal that I’m making, and then I’m going to be looking to see what their response is, and then let’s have an election about it. Let’s have an election about real choices that will actually affect people’s lives. That’s what I’m interested in.”

Clinton also suggested she would be able to convince Republicans to support the plan. She named Lamar Alexander, the Republican U.S. senator from Tennessee who has advocated for more accountability from colleges, as a possible partner.

“Once I get to the White House, I will do what I’ve always done,” said Clinton. “I will work very, very hard to put together the votes that are needed to try to get this passed. Because I think there will be a huge constituency for it.”

Campaign aides have also suggested that Clinton — a former secretary of state, U.S. senator, and first lady — would work better than Obama with Republicans on Capitol Hill. (On the campaign trail, Clinton has her own wistful riff about her husband’s administration, when Newt Gingrich, the Republican speaker of the House, would fight the administration all day, but spend his evening hours at the White House with the president, drafting a deal they could both accept.)

Two Democrats trailing Clinton in the polls, Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, have already offered voters their student debt plans.

Sanders, the U.S. senator from Vermont, detailed a proposal in May: His “College for All Act” would pay for the full cost of tuition at public colleges and universities with $750 billion over 10 years in federal and state funding, raised through new taxes on Wall Street.

O’Malley, the former governor of Maryland, set an aggressive goal in June of debt-free college within the next five years. And over the weekend, ahead of the Clinton announcement, O’Malley’s deputy campaign manager, Lis Smith, emailed a memo to reporters hyping the plan: “What leadership on higher education looks like,” the release read. “Actions, not just words.”

On Monday afternoon, Smith released another statement on behalf of the campaign, arguing that O’Malley has “led, not followed,” she said, noting that the governor froze tuition for four years in a row in Maryland. “He is the only candidate in the race who actually has a record of making college more affordable.”

Leading progressive groups — such as MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, and the progressive change campaign committee — praised the Clinton plan and declined in interviews and statements to rank one of the three plans as better than the others.

Adam Green, the co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, an organization that has been critical of Clinton in the lead-up to her campaign, called her plan “very big and ambitious.” Charles Chamberlain, the executive director of Democracy for America, a group founded by former presidential candidate Howard Dean, also described the proposals as “ambitious.”

Nick Berning, a spokesman for MoveOn, said on Monday afternoon that each proposal showed “bold leadership” on a “crisis” confronting millions. “The most important thing here is that all of these candidates are proposing debt-free college or bolder plans. That is a big step forward,” Berning said.

In Exeter — the first of several events this week in Iowa and New Hampshire where Clinton will outline her plan — Clinton told the crowd that she felt a certain urgency about the issue.

Higher education, she said, should push students closer to their dreams — but “paying for college actually pushes those dreams further and further out of reach.”

“That is a betrayal of everything college is supposed to represent.”

Ruby Cramer is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York.

Contact Ruby Cramer at ruby.cramer@buzzfeed.com.

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