While the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates agree on a host of issues, expanding government assistance for college tuition is one area that divides the field. The progressive wing of the field — consisting of Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders — contend that public college should be free to lower the barrier to accessing a college education that economists argue is necessary to earn high wages in our economy. The more moderate side of the party — led by Joe Biden, Amy Klobuchar, and Mike Bloomberg — agree that lowering the barriers to college access is important, but propose making only two-year colleges (community college) free. Pete Buttigieg stands in the middle of these two stances, arguing that college should be free for families who earn up to $100,000 but should not be free for millionaires. Buttigieg’s plan has received sharp criticism on the left; however, I believe that the criticism of this plan is too harsh, which has prevented voters and pundits from substantive weighing the cost and benefits to each policy proposal. Despite being a liberal college student who voted for Warren in the New Hampshire primary and who doesn’t agree with a lot of moderate stances that Buttigieg takes, I do agree with him that finite federal resources can be better spent than subsidizing college for those who don’t need it.
An Overview of Presidential Candidates’ Proposals for Higher Education
Warren and Sanders’ plans, while not identical, are mostly similar on the breadth of government action used to eliminate the cost of a college education. Their proposals would make public college and community college 100% free, increase the size and scope of Pell Grants to pay for other non-tuition expenses like books, housing and food as well as cancel large portions of student debt. However, a significant difference between Sanders and Warren’s plans is that Sanders proposes the forgiveness (or the government pays for) of all student loan debt, whereas Warren’s plan will forgive debt up for incomes up to $250,000. Still, both programs are very leftist; the rationale behind them is that those who want a college education should no longer be deterred by cost or burdened with massive student loan debt that stays with and impacts post-college students for decades.
Biden, Klobuchar and Bloomberg, in line with the moderate wing of the Democratic party, contend that comprehensive college funding programs are too expensive. Instead, they have proposed plans that will make community college free, beef up Pell Grants and increase programs to help people repay student loan debt. These plans are more fiscally conservative, making higher education more accessible but stopping short of the expansive policy proposals of Warren and Sanders.
Buttigieg’s plan consists of several parts: first, he proposes making public two- and four- year college free for students of families that earn up to $100,000 each year. Second, he proposes making college tuition a sliding scale for houses with annual incomes up to $150,000, meaning tuition costs are lowered in amounts proportional to their income. Buttigieg’s team has stated that this plan will make college free for 80% of students and provide assistance for an additional 10%. Only students whose families earn $150,001 annually will have to pay the full cost of public college tuition: an estimated 10% of students. On top of this, he intends to increase Pell Grants, automatically enroll debtors in income-based repayment programs and expand public service loan forgiveness programs. Buttigieg’s plan is projected to cost around $500 billion, Warren’s about $1.25 trillion and Sanders’ $2.2 trillion.
Why I Support Buttigieg’s Plan
As someone who is very ideologically in line with Warren and Sanders, supporting Buttigieg’s plan is a pretty hot take. Regardless, I do think Buttigieg is right that if the fundamental reason for increasing government spending and intervention is to elevate those left behind by the system, globalization and elites, money can be better spent than subsidizing the pockets of people who can afford college. Buttigieg’s plan is sufficient to tackle the problem of college affordability and accessibility, and extra funding can be better spent on programs that focus on at-risk populations. It is important to note that Warren and Sanders’ excess $1-2 trillion is not all used to subsidize college for wealthy students. However, because government resources are finite, even an extra couple billion that is re-invested in communities or used to provide additional benefits counts.
Criticisms of Buttigieg’s Plan.
There are many fair criticisms from the left of Buttigieg’s plan. It is important to note that I am operating on the assumption that increased access to public college is a worthwhile government endeavor for economic and moral reasons. Thus, I will not be responding to arguments against that notion here. Instead, I think it is important to discuss the substantive criticisms of the plan and talk through why I support it.
One common criticism by Sanders and his supporters is that universality — or full coverage — is essential for social equity. For example, AOC criticized Buttigieg’s plan in a tweet: “Everyone contributes & everyone enjoys. We don’t ban the rich from public schools, firefighters, or libraries [because] they are public goods.” However, I think this criticism doesn’t counter the root rationale for limiting the subsidization for affluent students. There is no data to support a claim that without free college, rich students cannot attend. Funding from taxes still goes to public institutions and rich students would still have the same access to them as they did before the plan was enacted. The difference is that poor students would also get access to the benefits of a college education. The proposal doesn’t ban rich students from entering public colleges. Just as our tax structure operates under the theory of “the rich should pay their fair share” for public goods like libraries, highways and K-12 education, the government does not need to spend federal dollars subsidizing a service wealthy students will still have access to.
A second criticism is that income does not paint the entire picture of a families’ income, and thus limiting free college to those who make less than $100,000 annually still excludes Americans who need assistance financing college. I believe Buttigieg’s plan is sufficient to deal with this problem. First, the sliding scale of college tuition proportional to income between $100,000 and $150,000 minimizes this risk, as even if college is not entirely free, it is financially accessible. Second, liberal student loan policies like loan forgiveness and income-based tuition repayment, which sets minimum payment for student loans on a percentage post-graduate income, mean that loans for students who fall above the cutoff line are much less likely to cause significant financial distress. Finally, the reduced harm imposed on the 10% of students between $100,000 and $150,000 and the harm of paying full price for the 10% of students who are above that benchmark must be weighed in proportion to the benefits the extra federal money could be used to enhance the lives of those living below the poverty line, subsidized housing, providing healthcare or the countless other liberal policies that are vying for funding. When looking at funding as zero-sum, it is difficult to justify paying for policies these students don’t truly need when other issues are just as pressing and can be solved using federal dollars.
No plan is perfect, and no candidate has all perfect plans. However, on the issue of free public college, I think criticism of Buttigieg’s plan has mostly been a proxy for larger responses to his moderate ideology and not the substance of his policy proposal. Thus, while I didn’t vote for Buttigieg, I think it is essential to give full weight to the pros and cons of his policies and recognize when some of them are better than other candidates’. As democrats battle out to see who will be our nominee, it benefits everyone to find the best policies regardless of the candidate and elevate them both to help us win in 2020 and legislate effectively when we take back the White House.
As of March 1st, Buttigieg has dropped out of the race. Nevertheless, I hope the other democratic candidates adopt his broad but fiscally responsible college policy, or at the least recognize and build off of the work his campaign has already done.