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Opinion Pete Buttigieg’s college affordability plan is actually the most progressive

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., kicks off his bus tour with a town hall at the recently renovated Rex Theatre in Manchester, New Hampshire Friday. (Jim Watson/Afp Via Getty Images)

IT SAYS something about the state of the Democratic presidential race that a $500 billion college affordability plan might be considered modest and incremental. In fact, we would argue that South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s new education proposal is both more affordable and more progressive than the other, more expensive ones out there; indeed, more progressive because it is more affordable and better targeted.

Mr. Buttigieg released Friday a plan to make two-year and four-year public colleges free for 80 percent of American students. Those hailing from families that earn $100,000 per year or less would see no tuition bills. Families earning between $100,000 and $150,000 per year would see their tuition costs lowered in amounts proportional to their incomes. Doing so would deliver subsidies to fully 90 percent of students, the Buttigieg campaign reckons. Meanwhile, the mayor would allow low-income students to use Pell Grants for books, travel and other education-related expenses.

Mr. Buttigieg’s proposal would mark a massive shift in how public higher education is funded, and it would require substantial new revenue — he claims from the top 1 percent — to pay for it. Even so, it stops short of the free-college-for-all plans that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) have offered, which would wastefully hand tuition subsidies to wealthy families who don’t need the help. The result is that Mr. Buttigieg can devote some of the money he would raise from the 1 percent to other worthy causes, whereas Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren need new and different revenue-raisers — some of them implausible or economically risky — to fund their more expansive programs. It is more progressive to target aid to those who require it, conserving federal resources to do the maximum good.

Mr. Buttigieg’s plan is not perfect. It risks encouraging more tuition hikes and other cost inflation, which might not harm many families but could result in skyrocketing federal costs. In return for his massive infusion of federal money, Mr. Buttigieg would demand that states continue investing in public university systems and restrain tuition. Enforcing this principle would be key to making the system work.

Also, some relatively wealthy people would still benefit. Critics note that Mr. Buttigieg’s $100,000 threshold is arbitrary, particularly when that amount of money goes much further in some places than in others. He might consider adjustments for region and other circumstances.

A fairer and more efficient solution to the college affordability question would have students pay back something for their education — or relieve their debt burdens — based on their after-graduation income rather than their family circumstances before enrollment.

But Mr. Buttigieg has nevertheless resisted the faux-progressive lure of big, universal programs and designed one that would provide help to those who need it. He deserves credit for that.

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: Warren’s free-college-and-debt-forgiveness plan may be liberal, but it isn’t progressive

Bernie Sanders: Make college free for all

The Post’s View: There are consequences to making college free

Charles Lane: The answer to Bernie Sanders’s student debt proposal is ‘no’

Michael Crow: It’s time to end the obsession with college exclusivity