Washington • Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren on Monday unveiled a sweeping proposal to erase student loan debt for millions of Americans and make public college free for millions more, a plan that could distinguish her from the rest of the Democratic field.
Sen. Warren, of Massachusetts, is the first Democratic candidate to release a detailed policy to tackle the high cost of higher education for people who want to go to college and those who are still paying for it.
Her plan would wipe away up to $50,000 in student debt for borrowers with an annual household income of less than $100,000, an estimated 42 million Americans. It also would cover tuition at all two- and four-year public colleges, while expanding federal Pell Grants for low-income students by $100 billion and creating a $50 billion fund for historically black colleges and universities.
The cost? Roughly $1.25 trillion over 10 years. Debt forgiveness alone would involve a one-time cost of $640 billion. Warren, who unveiled the plan in a piece posted on Medium, plans to pay for the plan with her Ultra-Millionaire Tax, a 2 percent annual tax on 75,000 families with $50 million or more in wealth.
“The time for half-measures is over,” Warren wrote in her piece on Medium. “My broad cancellation plan is a real solution to our student debt crisis. It helps millions of families and removes a weight that’s holding back our economy.”
The Democratic Party has rallied around the idea of debt-free college, with most candidates vying for the nomination pledging support for some iteration of that proposal. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president, has proposed the College for All Act, for instance, a cost-sharing program that would send $47 billion a year to states who agree to increase their higher-education funding.
Yet there has been little mention of the more than 44 million people already burdened with student loans, which makes Warren’s debt cancellation plan a standout, liberal policy analysts say.
“Warren is recognizing that we will not be able to make tuition free without addressing past harm done by student debt,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher-education policy and sociology at Temple University. “She’s targeting the most at-risk people with the $50,000 limit. I might have gone a bit lower, but we need the middle class to play ball.”
Goldrick-Rab said communities of color will stand to benefit significantly from the combination of debt forgiveness and free tuition. However, she said covering non-tuition expenses by expanding the Pell Grant, a federal program targeting low-income students, is not the best use of the program. Goldrick-Rab, who has written about hunger and homelessness on college campuses, said a better solution could include expanding the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Many of the proposals in Warren’s higher-education plan are focused on racial and socioeconomic equity. Warren would make additional federal funding available to states that demonstrate improvements in enrolling and graduating low-income students and students of color. She also would require public colleges to complete an annual audit identifying shortfalls in enrollment and graduation rates for that population.
Warren, who has championed higher-education-overhaul bills during her time in the Senate, is firmly staking out ground with the more liberal wing of the Democratic Party. But her student debt policies may not sit well with moderates.
At a recent campaign event in Boston, Buttigieg said: “Americans who have a college degree earn more than Americans who don’t. I have a hard time getting my head around the idea of a majority who earn less because they didn’t go to college subsidizing a minority who earn more because they did.”