The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Who will really benefit from Warren’s student debt plan?

Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren discusses her education funding reform proposal during a campaign stop Tuesday at Allen University in Columbia, S.C.
Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren discusses her education funding reform proposal during a campaign stop Tuesday at Allen University in Columbia, S.C. (Meg Kinnard/AP)

For years after graduating from business school, I used to joke, I was living on Ramen and Cheez Doodle Surprise — the surprise being that you’re 32 years old and still carrying so much student-loan debt that you can’t afford brand-name ramen. 

Ah, well. I’d decided to use my MBA to go into journalism. I couldn’t really have expected anything different. 

But Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) thinks we shouldn’t have to suffer for our educations. This week, the presidential candidate announced that she wants to forgive some or all of the student-loan debt for anyone earning less than $250,000 a year, while making tuition at public colleges effectively free.

I have, you might say, a visceral appreciation for this plan’s appeal. But I do have some questions. 

For example: How will Warren make sure public-college tuition stays at what the federal government is willing to pay? Those colleges are run by the states, and the federal government has no constitutional authority to set tuition at state institutions. 

The benefit could be limited to schools that voluntarily cap tuition at the federally guaranteed rate, of course. But making college free for students, while setting a ceiling on the revenue they generate, will increase the number of students and decrease the resources available to serve them.

Follow Megan McArdle's opinionsFollow

Which brings me to my next question: How is Warren going to prevent the overcrowding and deteriorating conditions that tend to afflict free university systems in Europe? The United States has the best tertiary education system in the world; will it still be the best when Warren is done with it?

Easy answer: Make those federal payments generous. But, sorry, one more question — how do we pay for it? 

Warren says that the whole cost can be covered by her Ultra-Millionaire Tax. Oh, no, more questions, such as “Is that tax plan constitutional?” (Answer: maybe not.) Also, Warren already promised a chunk of that money to her new child-care subsidy. After she gives everyone cheap day care, how much will be left over for forgiving nearly $1.6 trillion of outstanding student-loan debt and sending every public-college student to school for free? 

But the biggest question I have is simply: Why spend federal money on this? College graduates are the best-off people in the country, in almost every way. There are probably better candidates for new spending — about two-thirds of the population, in fact.

The burden of student loans doesn’t even begin to erase the economic benefits of the degree they paid for. Over a lifetime, college graduates will earn hundreds of thousands of dollars more than their less-educated peers. Meanwhile, the median student loan balance is around $17,000 — more like “new economy car” than “perpetual debt slavery.” 

Americans have about $1.1 trillion of outstanding auto debt, not that far from that $1.6 trillion in student loans, but without already generous government repayment subsidies. If you wouldn’t claim that Toyota Corollas are imposing a grievous, unsupportable burden on the nation’s youth, making it impossible to start a family or buy a home, and generally wrecking the economy, then you probably shouldn’t make similar claims about student loans. And in the United States, cars are also usually a prerequisite for gainful employment.

The difference, of course, is that the sort of people who peruse campaign planks tend to be the kind of people who have borrowed against a major chunk of their income to get a degree, not a car. And the people who write the planks, or write about them, may well have borrowed a lot of money to get a fancy degree — and then gone into something personally rewarding, such as writing or political activism, instead of something lucrative.

Those people do face real difficulties, but they tend to think that their own struggles are more common, and of greater national significance, than those struggles actually are. And these people appear to be increasingly more concentrated among the Democratic base, as Democrats become the party of the professional class, and of the working poor. 

Naturally, Democrats want to appeal to their educated voters, since that group drives a lot of votes in the primaries. Which is why, when they announce new programs to help “struggling American families” and levy new taxes on “the rich” to pay for them, the cutoff for both is so often set at $250,000 — well above any reasonable definition either of “rich” or “struggling.”

 There’s always a danger in any high-low economic coalition that the agenda gets set by the elite members, and justified by the poor ones. And indeed, Warren touts the benefits of her proposals for low-paid teachers, single mothers, first-generation minority college students . . . even though the big-ticket items seem exquisitely tailored to the biggest financial burdens of affluent young professionals.

Which prompts one more question about Warren’s plan: cui bono?

Twitter: @asymmetricinfo

Read more from Megan McArdle’s archivefollow her on Twitter or subscribe to her updates on Facebook.

Read more:

Katrina vanden Heuvel: Americans are drowning in student-loan debt. The U.S. should forgive all of it.

Matt Cartwright and Al Roth: Student loan forgiveness and other incentives could save lives. Here’s how.

F.H. Buckley: The silver bullet for student debt: Bankruptcy

Robert Gebelhoff: Projections for student loan defaults are terrifying. It’s time to act.

Brian Payne and Daniel DeMarte: How two Virginia colleges are reducing costs and accelerating completion