Elizabeth Warren is trying to tackle the skyrocketing cost of education with a plan to forgive student-loan debt and offer free college — but experts are divided on her ambitious idea

Boston Globe/Getty ImagesSen. Elizabeth Warren joins students gathered at Madison Park High School before the March for Our Lives in Boston on March 24, 2018.
  • On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren unveiled a highly ambitious plan to relieve a massive amount of student loan debt and make public college free for all.
  • The plan is one of the boldest and most progressive in the 2020 debate and progressive education experts and activists praised its scope.
  • But conservatives – and some 2020 Democrats – aren’t fans of the proposal. They cite the $US1.25 trillion price tag, and argue that the proposal doesn’t do enough to address skyrocketing college tuition.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren unveiled an ambitious plan to relieve most Americans’ student loan debt and make public college free for all.

Warren’s policy would cancel $US50,000 in student loan debt for every American whose family makes up to $US100,000, and make all public higher education, including community colleges, free for all.

The plan is vast in scope: it would eliminate all student debt for 75% of Americans who have it, and get rid of at least some debt for 95% of the almost 45 million affected Americans, according to an analysis by four social policy professors released by the campaign.

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Elizabeth Warren just unveiled a plan to make public colleges free for all Americans

Progressive activists have cheered on the 2020 candidate’s plan, which would also expand grants for low-income students and significantly boost funding for historically black colleges and universities.

But the proposal has also been critiqued by conservatives, moderate Democrats, and some education experts, who say it’s too expensive and an insufficient fix for the rapidly-rising cost of college.

College campus students walkDrew Angerer/Getty ImagesNational student debt has more than doubled in the last decade, and reached $US1.5 trillion this year.

The necessity of a college degree

Warren’s free college plan is premised on the idea that education – kindergarten through college – should be a public good.

But many conservatives don’t believe the federal government should be responsible for higher education. And some conservative education experts argue that the government shouldn’t incentivise Americans to get a college degree over another other form of higher education or training.

Lindsey Burke, the director of the Center for Education Policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told INSIDER that Warren’s plan further cements “the notion that the only way to be successful in life is to go to a four-year brick and mortar college.”

Burke argues the system instead needs accreditation reform, more innovative tuition financing models, and proposals that would put colleges on the hook for their students’ future success.

But Americans overwhelmingly view college as a key to opportunity and financial security.

A 2012 Pew survey found a whopping 94% of parents of kids under 17 years old expected their children to attend college.

And there is a massive earnings gap between Americans with bachelors degrees and those with high school degrees. In 2015, college graduates earned 56% more then their high school graduate counterparts. Those with four-year degrees make 26% more, on average, than those with associate’s degrees – and that gap grows to more than 50% after a decade of work experience.

And the demand for workers with college degrees is growing. By 2020, 65% of US jobs will require at least some higher education, according to a 2013 Georgetown University study, but just about a third of Americans have college degrees, and about 40% have education beyond high school.

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And, of course, there’s the issue of cost. Warren’s plan comes with a $US1.25 trillion price tag, which the senator says she’d pay for with her wealth tax on the country’s 75,000 richest families.

After Warren rolled out the plan, some Democrats agreed with Republicans that student-loan debt forgiveness and free public college is simply too expensive.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a moderate Minnesota Democrat and 2020 candidate, argued during a town hall on Monday that the US can’t afford the plan and has proposed a more modest alternative that would include making community college free.

“I wish I could staple a free college diploma under every one of your chairs. I do. Don’t look, it’s not there. I wish I could do that but I have to be straight with you,” Klobuchar said on Monday.

Burke, and other conservatives, further argued that Warren’s proposal would be unfair to Americans who’ve already paid off their loans.

The “losers” under Warren’s policy, Burke argued, are “those students who chose to work while they were in college to minimise their debt after they graduated, those students who chose to maybe pursue an apprenticeship instead of an expensive four-year degree, those students who took out a loan but after they graduated lived very modestly in order to pay back what they owed.”

Many on the left criticised that logic, arguing that ameliorating suffering for one group isn’t a bad thing. And others argued that past generations of students had it easier than today’s students because of the sharp drop in state investment in public colleges over the last decade.

A fix for skyrocketing tuition?

Education experts across the political spectrum agree that the rising cost of a college degree is unsustainable. Tuition at four-year public colleges has risen more than 100% since 2001, even after adjusting for inflation. And grants and financial aid have not kept up.

Elizabeth Popp Berman, a sociology professor at the University at Albany, SUNY says she’d like to see more details in Warren’s plan on how the government would force schools to control costs.

“You have to find some way to cap the college tuition aspect of it, or else you don’t really solve the underlying problem,” Berman told INSIDER.

Berman does believe that if public colleges are tuition- and fee-free, private colleges will be forced to lower their costs at least somewhat in order to compete.

And Mark Huelsman, the associate director of policy and research at the liberal think tank Demos, argued that Warren’s plan will limit costs at public schools by controlling the amount each school is allocated, while forcing all to be tuition-free.

“The potential of this plan is that it increases public investment back to levels we saw when college was much more affordable, and it pegs it to a price for students,” he told INSIDER. “So rather than just pumping money into the system, it pumps money into the system and says that in return for that money … public colleges have to be tuition-free.”

In contrast Burke blames the federal student loan system for skyrocketing tuition. About 30% of undergraduate students took out federal student loans in the 2016-2017 school year.

“[Colleges] are able to increase their tuition and fees at breathtaking levels because they know students can just run back to the federal government and have easy access to a loan,” Burke said.

Other education reformers argue the cost of public college has risen so dramatically in large part because of cuts in state funding. Particularly since the Great Recession, state legislatures have pushed tuition increases while reducing funding for their state’s educational institutions.

Subsidizing rich kids?

Critics of Warren’s plans argue that free college and debt forgiveness would force taxpayers, most of whom don’t have college degrees, to fund the education of students from wealthy families.

“Americans who have a college degree earn more than Americans who don’t,” Democratic 2020 candidate Pete Buttigieg said. “As a progressive, I have a hard time getting my head around the idea of a majority who earn less because they didn’t go to college subsidizing a minority who earn more because they did.”

On Monday, Buttigieg argued that progressive tax reform should be accomplished before a free college plan like Warren’s is implemented.

But Huelsman says progressives should be pushing for the principle of education as a public good. (Warren’s plan would cut off student loan forgiveness for those with a household income of more than $US250,000).

“No one’s proposing that rich kids pay for K-12,” Huelsman said. “This centres the idea that everyone, regardless of income, should have a right to free higher education.”

Berman argues the universality of the proposal makes it more politically palatable: it would benefit everyone, while targeting low-income students.

“It does mean that you’re giving a benefit that’s going to go to the middle class to a significant extent, but I also think that politically that’s the only way you get people on board with providing assistance to the people who need it the most,” Berman said.

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