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Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are already vowing to do something about student loan debt. This is why the $1.6 trillion issue could play a big part in the 2020 election. USA TODAY

College is more than a launch pad to the middle class. It demands intellectual growth and the critical thinking needed to defend against disinformation.

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Marching in the rain during our strike a few years ago, I passed a young man standing against a school gate handing out wet copies of a communist newspaper. Why, he asked the striking teachers, waste our collective energies and outrage on salaries and working conditions when the whole global capitalist system needs obliterating?

We marched right past him. We just wanted a little more pay and slightly smaller classes and were eager to return to our students and motivate the apathetic, counsel the emotionally fragile and mitigate adolescent rage.

I think teachers tend to be mostly more pragmatic than ideological. At least I am. When I hear about the battle within the progressive and moderate wings of the Democratic Party, I always expect to find myself on the side of moderation.

At this moment, though, I really don’t. More accurately, I don’t find much of what progressives are pleading for terribly radical, and I don’t find opposition to it very moderate — or pragmatic.

Health care without bankruptcy?

Urban policing without atrocity?

Human activity without climate catastrophe?

Why is any of this controversial? Have politics and morality and even self-preservation become so infected with emotion and so misinformed that so many among us can no longer make rational choices or understand their own self-interest?

Timing is everything and often unfair

Which brings me to another inexplicable controversy: affordable college education.

The latest iteration of that debate is the proposed cancellation of federal student loan debt, opposed loudly by those who’ve already paid off their college debts or worked their way through college, or whose parents mortgaged their houses or borrowed on their retirement to pay tuition.

Call it the "Why now?" argument — and it applies equally to the more meaningful question of subsidizing free college options in every state in the country. Would that be fair to those of us, students and parents, who’ve invested thousands, in some cases hundreds of thousands, in college education?

Of course it’s not fair. Nor is it fair that in 1975, annual tuition and fees for the University of California were about $630 (which adjusted for inflation is over $3,000) and UC tuition and fees now are over $14,000. Timing is everything in college tuition and job and housing markets — and no one gets to choose the economic conditions into which each of us or anyone else is born.

Nonetheless, the cost of college impacts all of us. And if Democrats, whatever the accompanying adjective, want to expand their base and maybe win back the Senate, and keep the House of Representatives and the White House, they ought to consider that Republicans in general and Trump in particular have a wide advantage with noncollege-educated voters. The power of the Democrats could well rest in how many people get a post-secondary education — and the prohibitive cost of a college education might well be a political liability.

Beyond that, making college accessible to everyone could be essential to preserving our democracy. In the 21st century economy, a college degree is increasingly connected to individual economic mobility and sustainability. That's a reality highlighted by disparities during the pandemic, when most of the unemployment and other hardship have stricken those without a college degree holding jobs that most likely cannot be performed remotely. 

Students First and Other Lies: Straight Talk From a Veteran Teacher" and, on audio, "Now's the Time" (narrated by Kim Fields). Follow him on Twitter: @LarryStrauss

You can read diverse opinions from our @usatodayopinion and in our daily Opinion newsletter. To respond to a column, submit a comment to letters@lightfiretech.com.

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