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Photo: Flatiron School

Amid a political uprising against student debt, some colleges and skills schools are offering a tuition scheme in which students commit to paying a fixed percentage of their after-graduation salary for five or more years.

What's happening: The system, called "Income Share Agreements," responds to what many experts call a student debt crisis: some 44 million Americans now owe some $1.5 trillion, and most of the Democratic presidential candidates are calling for some form of free college or trade school, and debt forgiveness.

  • ISAs look a lot like loans, and typical terms result in students paying back 150% to 250% of the original tuition.
  • But loans have much the same results, and ISAs are missing a key downside to straight borrowing — you shouldn't be able to default on one because you typically only start repaying once you are employed and earning a certain minimum income.

Driving the news: In an announcement on Thursday, the Flatiron School, a data bootcamp owned by WeWork, said it will fund $100 million in ISAs to future students. Offered in WeWork offices and in online versions, Flatiron courses are $15,000 in tuition.

  • After graduation, you begin repaying the tuition at 10% of your gross salary as long as you are earning $40,000 or more. If you earn, say, $70,000 a year, you would end up repaying $21,500 over approximately five years.
  • "In any month they are not employed or earning the equivalent of $40,000 or more a year, they don't pay. With student loans, you owe regardless of if you work," said Adam Enbar, CEO of the Flatiron School.

The backdrop: The idea of promising a portion of your future income as a form of investment in your potential goes back to 1945, and a book by Nobel laureate economists Milton Friedman and Simon Kuznets.

Many experts call student loan programs a favorable aspect of the U.S. higher education system since they allow students to go as far as they can academically, all the way through a world-class doctorate. "If you are going for a master's degree, there is no limit to what you can borrow. You can do income-based repayment," said Kevin Carey, an expert at New America.

  • But many student also get in over their head, either from borrowing too much or failing to get a job paying enough.
  • So in 2016, Purdue University, reaching back to the Friedman-Kuznets idea, began a still-small trend among universities by offering ISAs to its students.

The bottom line: ISAs are not the answer to the student-debt problem. In a vocational school such as the boot camps, they offer financing for students who cannot afford to pay monthly. Experts say that, in most cases, loans are still the best option for financing college. "Because ISAs are a shiny object, it doesn't mean they are the best option," Carey said.

Go deeper

Ro Khanna accuses Biden of quitting Middle East

Rep. Ro Khanna. Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile for Web Summit via Getty Images

An outspoken progressive Democrat is wary of President Biden’s approach to the Middle East, arguing it’s like “conceding defeat of the aspiration” to win a Nobel Peace Prize.

Why it matters: A number of members of Biden’s own party dislike his Middle East strategy, as his administration signals the region is no longer the priority it was for President Obama and his predecessors.

Democrats eye reconciliation for immigration

Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Comprehensive immigration reform is a pipe dream, but some Senate Democrats are hoping to tie key immigration provisions to the next big reconciliation push.

Why it matters: Immigration is one of the most controversial and partisan issues in U.S. politics, which is why the budget reconciliation process — which allows for bills to pass the Senate with a simple majority rather than the usual 60 votes — is so attractive.

2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Scoop: Biden meeting Quad amid own pivot toward Asia

Artists paint portraits of President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris in Mumbai, India. Photo: Anshuman Poyrekar/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

President Biden plans to meet this month with the leaders of Japan, Australia and India in a virtual summit of the so-called Quad, according to people familiar with the matter.

Why it matters: By putting a Quad meeting on the president’s schedule, the White House is signaling the importance of partnerships and alliances to counter China’s growing influence in the Indo-Pacific region.

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