Senator Elizabeth Warren unveiled a sweeping plan Monday to forgive massive amounts of student loan debt for middle-class Americans as she tries to appeal to the young voters expected to play a major role in the 2020 campaign.
The Democratic presidential candidate from Massachusetts also called for free tuition at state colleges and universities as another way to relieve the higher education costs that have financially crippled many millennials.
“College shouldn’t just be a privilege for those who can afford to take on the significant expenses associated with higher education,” she wrote in a Medium post that announced the plan.
Warren is setting the pace among Democrats in the campaign in rolling out major policy proposals, and her education announcement came as she was scheduled to participate along with four other top presidential contenders in a televised town hall forum with young voters in Manchester, N.H., on Monday night. Student debt defines the lives of many young people, and voters ages 18 to 29 are forecast to make up more than one-third of the vote in the 2020 election.
The debt burden weighing them down is not a result of laziness or irresponsibility, Warren said, but a government that has put the interest of the wealthy and well-connected over the interests of working families — a dominant theme of her campaign.
“The result is a huge student loan debt burden that’s crushing millions of families and acting as an anchor on our economy,” she wrote. Clearing the debt would allow middle-class Americans to buy homes and start new businesses, Warren said.
The plan also would help reduce the economic disparities between white people and blacks and Latinos, because those groups would benefit disproportionately from the debt relief, she said. Women also hold the majority of student debt.
Her proposal could be an attempt to appeal to supporters of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the Democratic front-runner who is battling with Warren for the backing of liberal voters. Sanders is known for the tuition-free college proposal that he touted during the 2016 election and is significantly ahead of Warren in recent polls.
This is not, however, the first time Warren has talked about student debt relief. She has proposed several relief measures during her time in the Senate. She is also a longtime critic of for-profit colleges, and her plan revealed Monday would eliminate all federal funding to such institutions.
The out-of-control cost of a college degree is likely to become a key issue in the 2020 election. While Democratic candidates in 2016 focused on tuition-free and debt-free college for future students, this time it seems many candidates agree that debt relief for current students and recent college graduates is important to voters and could boost the economy.
Warren’s post mentioned that her degree at the University of Houston cost $50 a semester, which she was able to afford with only her part-time waitressing job. The idea that a part-time job could fund a degree now is laughable.
The average student debt in this country is about $29,000, a staggering amount for people who do not earn huge salaries.
Warren said her two-pronged plan would cost $1.25 trillion over 10 years. She proposed to pay for it with her previously proposed “Ultra-Millionaire Tax,” which would slap a 2 percent tax on wealth above $50 million and an additional 1 percent on wealth above $1 billion. Warren’s campaign said the tax would hit 75,000 families and raise $2.75 trillion over 10 years.
Warren was set to appear Monday night at Saint Anselm College in Manchester to answer questions from young voters in a town hall forum organized by CNN and the Institute of Politics at the Harvard Kennedy School.
The specific proposal from Warren comes in two parts — debt relief and tuition-free college.
On debt, she proposed to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt for every person with a household income under $100,000. For those with higher incomes, she proposes canceling less in a series of steps. For example, a person with an income of $130,000 would get $40,000 in debt canceled. The plan offers no relief to households that earn more than $250,000.
Warren said the plan would provide debt relief to more than 95 percent of the nearly 45 million Americans with student loans, and would cancel all the debt of more than 75 percent of them.
But it does no good to cancel debt if the underlying problem — the crippling cost of a college degree — is not remedied, she said.
So Warren is proposing free undergraduate tuition and fees to all public two- and four-year colleges. She also wants to expand Pell and other federal grants to help students cover the other costs of college, like books and housing.
She also would create a fund of at least $50 billion to help historically black colleges and universities, and other institutions that serve minority students specifically.
The cost of college only perpetuates the wealth gap in this country, Warren said, by deterring people from attending college or prompting them to drop out before they earn a degree.
Debt forgiveness could significantly alter which goals young people are able to attain. Colin Loiselle graduated from Suffolk University in 2018 with an undergraduate degree and two master’s degrees. He owes $80,000 in student loans.
Loiselle, 25, works for the town of Tyngsborough and pays about $600 in rent, with a roommate. He also pays about $400 a month toward his loans, based on an income-based repayment plan. He’d like to start saving for a down payment for a house but can’t because of the loan payments.
“It definitely is prohibitive,” he said.
Still, some experts say people like Loiselle are not the ones who need a government intervention the most. Research has shown that often borrowers who owe the smallest amounts suffer the most. They often leave college without a degree and earn very little.
“Help the people on the margins, then go after everybody else in the middle,” said Kevin Fudge, director of consumer advocacy at American Student Assistance, a nonprofit that helps educate students on how to afford a college.
But Sara Goldrick-Rab, a higher education and sociology professor at Temple University, said it is good that Warren’s plan would help middle-class people and those at the bottom. And she said it could help encourage a new generation of students who might otherwise decide college is not worth it.
“To me the biggest shame of the whole debt crisis is . . . deciding that because of that debt that college wasn’t worth it and about deciding, therefore, that you’re not going to send your kids,” she said.
Laura Krantz can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.