The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Sen. Elizabeth Warren introduces $1.2 trillion plan to tackle student debt

Presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) rolled out a higher-education plan Monday. (Callaghan O'Hare/Bloomberg News)
Placeholder while article actions load

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.

Warren 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 45 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 would stand to benefit significantly from the combination of debt forgiveness and free tuition. However, she said the Pell Grant, a federal program targeting low-income students, is not the best way to cover living expenses. 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.

Other candidates vying for the Democratic nomination, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, have taken a more conservative stance on debt-free college.

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.”

Critics of Warren’s proposal question whether the senator is offering a solution for something that isn’t exactly the problem she makes it out to be.

Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute, argues that most people who use student loans to finance their education end up with robust earnings and can afford to repay the debt.

“I’m not sure if she’s framing this as people can’t afford their loans? But they can because we have a program in place that allows them to pay based on their income already,” Delisle said, alluding to federal income-driven repayment plans that can lower monthly bills and eventually offer loan forgiveness. “Arguably, that’s probably a better, more targeted approach than what she’s proposing.”

He said there is also a “fairness problem” with Warren’s plan, because it favors one class of students over those who never took out loans.

Marshall Steinbaum, a fellow at the liberal think tank the Roosevelt Institute, supports Warren’s proposal and argues that these days, people who choose not to borrow for college have parents who can finance their education.

Student debt, he said, is a highly racialized problem that reflects differential access to high quality institutions and reflects discrimination in labor and credit markets. African American families, after decades of being shut out of traditional ladders of economic opportunity, have the fewest resources to cover the cost of college. And African American students often find themselves pursuing costly advanced degrees to gain equal footing in the job market with whites who hold bachelor’s degrees, said Steinbaum, an economist.

Student debt, nevertheless, is concentrated among people in the top quarter of the income distribution, as a recent study by the Urban Institute documented. That cohort tends to be white and relatively wealthy. Steinbaum said that’s precisely why Warren’s $100,000 income cap is an important way to ensure those who actually need the most help get it.