Since entering the 2020 presidential race, Elizabeth Warren has fired off hyper-ambitious policy proposals almost nonstop: universal child care, abolishing the Electoral College, ending the Senate filibuster. On Monday morning, the Massachusetts senator proposed her latest big idea on Medium: wiping out the student debt of 42 million Americans and creating a free universal public college.
Today, more than 44 million Americans are collectively in debt for over $1.5 trillion. The average student leaves college with more than $37,000 in loans, making it more difficult for them to buy a home, have children, and start businesses. “The result,” Warren writes, “is a huge student loan debt burden that’s crushing millions of families and acting as an anchor on our economy.”
Warren proposes canceling up to $50,000 in student loan debt for every person with household income below $100,000 a year. The numbers get a little more complicated from there: For every three dollars over $100,000 a household makes per year, they get one dollar less in debt relief. Anyone making above $250,000 a year, the top five percent of households, is ineligible. By Warren’s projections, her plan would cancel some debt for 95 percent of those with student loans and fully wipe out debt for nearly 75 percent.
But alleviating current student debt would only be a temporary solution. As long as tuition is exorbitantly expensive and predatory loans flourish, another national debt crisis is inevitable. With that in mind, Warren is also calling to make tuition free for students at public two-year and four-year colleges, with an extra $100 billion in funding for Pell grants. And in a move aimed at closing the racial wealth gap, she also wants to create additional funding for historically black colleges and to bar colleges from making admissions decisions based on criminal history and immigration status.
All told, Warren writes that her debt cancelation plan would result in a one-time cost of $640 billion—that’s $60 billion less than banks got in the 2008 bailout—and with free college would have a combined cost of $1.2 trillion over 10 years. To cover it, Warren proposed a two percent tax on people making more than $50 million a year.
Today, the cost of getting a college degree—a nonnegotiable in an increasingly information-based economy—is so high that for the first time in decades, we’re seeing a surge in downward mobility. That’s the result of state and federal governments cutting funding for education while backing private companies that charge astronomical interest rates on student loans. Student debt is more aggressive and tenacious than any other kind. Creditors can garnish wages, and it’s one of the only kinds of debt that bankruptcy won’t eliminate. And as Warren writes:
Policymakers stood by as state after state pulled back on investments
in public higher education and sent tuition soaring. They stood by as
for-profit colleges exploded, luring in students with false promises
and loading them up with debt as their executives and investors raked
in billions in taxpayer dollars. They stood by as employers demanded
higher credentials while offloading the cost of getting those
credentials onto workers. And they stood by as corporations made huge
profits off of the new skills graduates gained through higher
education while giving workers almost nothing in the way of wage
increases—increases policymakers falsely promised would make
graduates’ debt worth it.
What Warren is saying is that the student debt isn’t the irresponsibility of individuals, it’s a national crisis resulting from decades of targeted policies. The government helped to make this mess, Warren argues, and therefore it has a duty to clean it up.