Opinion | Warren’s Education Plan? Coulda Been Worse

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This article is part of David Leonhardt’s newsletter. You can sign up here to receive it each weekday.

Universal student-debt cancellation is a bad idea. It would be a big handout to Americans from upper-income families, most of whom are able to pay off their loans without too much trouble. “Education debt,” as Sandy Baum and Victoria Lee of the Urban Institute have written, “is disproportionately concentrated among the well-off.” (If you’re skeptical, I laid out the evidence in a recent column.)

A much better idea would be an enormous investment in colleges that enroll large numbers of middle-class and lower-income students. These colleges tend to be underfunded and suffer from high dropout rates. This investment program could be combined with targeted debt forgiveness for those college graduates (and especially nongraduates) unable to repay their loans.

When I heard this week that Elizabeth Warren was instead proposing a sweeping debt-relief program, I was disappointed. Her campaign has been full of ideas to reduce poverty and lift middle-class living standards. A big debt-cancellation program is much less progressive than most of her ideas.

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But as I dug into the details of her new proposal, I discovered that it wasn’t as bad as I had first feared. It is more targeted than her campaign has sometimes made it sound (such as the headline on this Medium post). Her plan is considerably less regressive than universal debt cancellation would be.

I still don’t love the idea. Warren would wipe out up to $50,000 in debt for anyone making less than $100,000 a year. Which means that a 24-year-old in Silicon Valley making $90,000 — and on a path to earn far more — could get a windfall. And people earning up to $250,000 — say, a 27-year-old investment banker or corporate lawyer — would get some benefit from the plan.

Warren would also make tuition free at every public college, including those with overwhelmingly upper-income students, like the University of Virginia and the University of Michigan. This money would do much more good if it instead went to community colleges, which are typically starved of resources, as Richard Kahlenberg noted in a Times Op-Ed.

Yet there are two reasons the Warren plan is better than I first thought.

First, people earning more than $100,000 a year can’t get the full $50,000 in debt relief; someone earning $220,000 could get only $10,000, for example. Second, the $50,000 cap means that people who took on more debt to get a degree in business, law and medicine — and are often earning very high salaries — will still have to pay back some of their loans.

A few statistics, which the campaign gave me, help highlight the targeted nature of the proposal:

In effect, Warren’s plan is focused on people with small and modest-size debts, who also tend to be those who have the most trouble paying off their loans, surprising as that may sound.

Her program still isn’t the one I would design. It’s too bourgeois. It confuses the mild discomforts of the professional class with the true struggles of the middle class and poor.

But the plan also doesn’t change the overall picture of Warren’s campaign. She has the most detailed agenda, by far, of any presidential candidate, and that agenda would do a lot to help millions of Americans who need it.

For more, Jared Bernstein, writing in The Washington Post, likes her plan more than I do, while Michael Strain of the American Enterprise Institute likes it less than I do.

I also recommend Warren’s Medium post, despite the misleading headline. In the second half of it, she proposes several promising ideas to make higher education more equitable, like more funding for Pell Grants and for colleges focused on minority students. She would pay for all of it with her proposed wealth tax on large fortunes.

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