This column has been updated.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) might want to work on making her free-college-and-debt-forgiveness plan more progressive.
That might sound like a weird criticism for a candidate already vying for the left-most lane in the 2020 primary. But I don’t mean “progressive” in the sense of “more palatable synonym for liberal.”
I mean “progressive” in the sense of “more generous to the poor than the wealthy.”
Warren deserves credit for focusing the 2020 campaign on America’s need to invest in human capital. A college degree is one of the best investments a person can make, with higher average returns than stocks, bonds, gold, housing. There are also large positive economic spillovers from having a more-educated populace. Yet states have been disinvesting in higher education for decades.
Unsurprisingly, reducing college costs is also popular. Nine in 10 Americans say college affordability is a very big or moderately big problem, according to Pew Research Center.
Some elements in Warren’s plan are well-targeted to help the neediest and most marginal students enroll in postsecondary education, persist through graduation and succeed in the workplace. These include calls to expand Pell Grants, cover more non-tuition expenses and increase funding for historically black colleges and universities.
But the core, blockbuster components of Warren’s plan — free four-year public college and a debt jubilee — are more problematic.
That’s because they give bigger benefits to higher-income families than to lower-income ones that actually need the help. Which raises questions not only about fairness but also about wasted dollars.
Take the free tuition proposal. This would be a big giveaway to high-income families who plan to send their kids to college anyway and don’t need to be comped. Free college means it’s free for Bill Gates’s kids, too, after all.
You would get more bang for the buck if you offered more generous aid to low-income students, phasing it out as you move up the income ladder: free tuition for the poor (plus assistance for non-tuition expenses, as Warren proposes), highly subsidized tuition for the middle class and full freight for Gates children.
The student-loan forgiveness plan has similar problems.
Warren would wipe out up to $50,000 in debt for everyone in a household making up to $100,000, and then progressively smaller amounts for households with up to $250,000 (that is, households in the United States’ 95th income percentile).
For context, despite sob stories suggesting that the typical young grad is a barista with $100,000 in debt, most students borrow much less and go on to earn much more. Among students who first enrolled in college in 2003, over the subsequent six years, 44 percent hadn’t borrowed at all and another 25 percent had borrowed less than $10,000. Just 2 percent had borrowed more than $50,000.
And who does that borrowing?
Well, about a third of all student debt is owed by people in the top income quartile; only 12 percent is owed by borrowers in the bottom quartile. Additionally, most student debt is owed by households who have graduate degrees, a population likely to have much higher lifetime earnings. In fact, these people are borrowing in order to make more money.
It’s no wonder, then, that the biggest beneficiaries of Warren’s debt-forgiveness plan would be upper-income households, according to an analysis by Brookings Institution scholar Adam Looney. He finds that low-income borrowers (people beneath the bottom 20th income percentile) would save $569 in annual payments under the proposal, compared with $2,653 for those in the 80th to 90th percentiles.
You might argue that political economy necessitates kicking some goodies to people who don’t need them. Maybe you need to buy off wealthier voters to secure their support for helping the poor.
But that’s not the argument the Warren campaign makes. Rather, it emphasizes that the overall policy would still be progressive, because it would be funded by Warren’s wealth tax.
“It’s a redistribution from the richest 1 percent to the bottom 95 percent. The overall flow of money here is extremely progressive,” a senior campaign aide told me.
Maybe. But there are better ways to help the working and middle classes without transferring money from the 99th percentile to the 95th. In fact, we already have a program for doing this with student loans.
They’re called income-driven repayment plans, which typically cap monthly payments at 10 percent of discretionary income (that is, adjusted gross income minus 150 percent of the poverty threshold). They also generally offer forgiveness after 20 years. Under current law, almost every borrower is already eligible for these plans, but enrollment is low because A) people don’t know about them and B) the red tape is a nightmare.
I get it. “Reduce red tape to make existing programs work better!” is less sexy than “Poof, everyone’s debts be gone!” But if anyone could sell such practical wonkishness, it’s Warren.