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Plans to erase student debt gain steam in presidential race

2020 Democrats split on who should benefit, but even moderates back some free college

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn unveil legislation Tuesday to forgive student loan debt. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

In a crowded field of Democratic presidential contenders jockeying for progressive support, debt-free college and student debt cancellation are emerging as marquee policy proposals — ones that could appeal to the one in five Americans who carry student debt.

Plans vary, and there is wide disagreement about who should benefit and how such policies should be funded. But even the more moderate candidates in the field are calling for at least some access to free college, in recognition of the growing burden student loans have placed on a generation of graduates. Polling, however, shows its importance to voters varies sharply with age.

According to Forbes, some 66 percent of borrowers who graduate from a public college hold student debt — on average, more than $25,000 per person.

On Tuesday, Massachusetts senator and 2020 hopeful Elizabeth Warren, along with House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, proposed canceling up to $50,000 in student debt per person, depending on the borrower’s income.

Warren, who is also a supporter of debt-free college, argued that voters should care about student debt, regardless of whether they have any.

“It is a drag on our entire economy,” she said. “Finding a way to cancel a big chunk of that student loan debt means freeing up young people to do more.”

Four years ago, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders made free college a centerpiece of his 2016 run for president. This time around, he has gone even further, calling for canceling all student debt — all $1.6 trillion of it, according to the Federal Reserve — in addition to implementing free public college.

Kitchen-table issue

While Warren and Sanders are competing for the support of the Democrats’ progressive wing, moderate candidates, such as Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, have proposed making community college tuition-free.

This broad acceptance of the need to address student debt represents a sea change in the college affordability conversation compared to a decade ago, according to Mark Huelsman, associate director of policy and research at the liberal think tank Demos.

“It wasn’t until 2014 that free community college was on the table as a national proposal,” he said, “and that’s the moderate edge of the discussion now.”

Nearly every Democratic candidate vying to take on President Donald Trump supports free community college in some form, though they differ on details.

That progressive shift, Huelsman said, is the result of a changing electorate, one for whom student debt is an everyday reality and the people affected by it are an increasingly active part of the electorate.

“In the generation that has come of age politically, this is a central kitchen-table issue to them,” he said. “Student debt has become the second largest form of debt in America behind mortgage debt, and that wasn’t true 10 or 15 years ago.”

Ashley Gray, a doctoral student in higher education leadership and policy studies at Howard University, said that while higher education is supposed to be a pathway toward upper mobility, student debt feels like “a ball and chain around our necks.”

“Without loan cancellation,” Gray said at Tuesday’s news conference with Warren and Clyburn, “it may impact the ability to one day to have a family. It’ll impact home ownership. It’ll also impact the ability to finance my future children’s education.”

Huelsman also attributed the increasing visibility of debt-free college plans to a sense of generational fairness, with some candidates linking their proposals to bygone educational opportunities. He pointed to Warren’s stump speech as an example.

“I got my chance. It was a $50-a-semester commuter college,” Warren said in her closing statement during the first Democratic debate last month. “That was a little slice of government that created some opportunity for a girl, and it opened my life.”

Concerns about who benefits

For younger candidates, it is personal experience with student debt that informs their policy positions. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who holds $140,000 in student debt along with his husband, Chasten, is one such candidate.

Buttigieg, 37, is a graduate of both Harvard and Oxford. While his plan would not go as far as those of Warren and Sanders, it would nonetheless make college free to lower- and middle-income families.

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Buttigieg opposes a broader free college initiative, however, saying he’s concerned about how the benefits would be distributed.

“I just don’t believe it makes sense to ask working-class families to subsidize even the children of billionaires,” he said during last month’s debate. “I think the children of the wealthiest Americans can pay at least a little bit of tuition.”

There are similar concerns when it comes to debt cancellation. An analysis by Adam Looney of the Brookings Institution argues that, under a forgiveness plan like Warren’s, the bottom 60 percent of households would receive only about 34 percent of the benefit from debt cancellation.

“Any student-loan debt relief proposal needs first to confront a simple question,” Looney wrote in a blog post. “Why are those who went to college more deserving of aid than those who didn’t? More than 90 percent of children from the highest-income families have attended college by age 22 versus 35 percent from the lowest-income families.”

Other candidates, such as Klobuchar, point to the cost of free college plans as a reason for their opposition. Sanders’ plan, by his own estimation, would cost an estimated $2.2 trillion to “guarantee higher education as a right for all and cancel all student debt.” He says that a tax on Wall Street speculation would pay for his plan and could raise $2.4 trillion in 10 years.

Critics, however, aren’t convinced.

“I am not for free four-year college for all, no,” Klobuchar said during a CNN town hall in February. “I wish — if I was a magic genie and could give that to everyone and we could afford it, I would.”

‘How do you pay?’

Free college and debt relief plans have also faced opposition from the right. In 2016, Sam Clovis, then the national co-chair and policy director for the Trump campaign, dismissed Democratic plans for debt-free college in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

“Unequivocally no,” Clovis said. “How do you pay for that? It’s absurd on its surface.”

Trump’s campaign website boasts that his Department of Education “reformed the student loan servicing process to improve the customer experience and lower costs.”

Its actual track record, however, has been more rocky. Last year, a federal judge ordered the department to implement an Obama-era debt cancellation rule that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos sought to block. More recently, one of the nation’s largest teacher unions sued DeVos over the alleged mismanagement of a debt forgiveness program.

Generational split

Despite the increased space such plans are occupying in the Democratic primary policy discussion, recent polling indicates that the country is still torn. A Quinnipiac poll from May found that a slight majority of voters oppose making public college tuition-free.

Debt forgiveness fared better, with 57 percent of respondents supporting a debt cancellation plan like the one proposed by Warren, with the government forgiving up to $50,000 in debt for those making less than $250,000 a year.

When it comes to older voters, though, such policies fare much worse. Approximately 65 percent of student debt is held by people 39 or younger, according to Forbes, and support for free public college falls to just 34 percent among voters 50 and older. White voters are also less interested — only 37 percent support free public college, the May Quinnipiac poll found.

According to Huelsman, student debt is disproportionately a burden on people of color, especially African American families.

“We know that black students take on more debt than white students,” he said. “They take on debt in higher percentages for the same degree, and they’re also much more likely to fall behind on their loan payments, likely due to the fact that they see less of an economic benefit from attending or completing college in the labor market.”

Huelsman, however, isn’t fazed by the numbers, and he doesn’t think candidates should be either.

“I think it is actually fundamentally easier to make the case for proposals like this now, in an era where we just had $2 trillion in tax cuts that were mostly aimed at high-wealth households,” he said.

Other 2020 hopefuls, such as former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, are offering plans that fall somewhere between those championed by Buttigieg and Sanders. 

Castro’s plan would not offer wholesale debt cancellation on the scale proposed by Sanders or Warren, but it offers what Huelsman calls an “elegant” solution to student debt with means-tested relief and interest accumulation caps.

Beyond the specifics of the candidates’ proposals, Huelsman said their proliferation reflects an important change in the conversation, with higher education, among other topics, increasingly being reframed as a public good.

“We’ve been on this trajectory of higher education being thought of as an individual investment, as a private good,” he said. “And I think we’re having a fundamental rethink of the role of government in providing opportunity, particularly educational opportunity.”

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