White House hopeful Elizabeth Warren backs free college for all

Clearly joining Bernie Sanders in free-college camp, senator widens party split on cost crisis

April 23, 2019
White House

US presidential contender Elizabeth Warren has called for universal free public college and widespread student loan debt cancellation, emphasising the importance of university costs as a 2020 election issue.

Ms Warren, a Democratic senator from Massachusetts, set out the idea in a blog post just days after another top contender, Pete Buttigieg, rejected “free college” as wasteful because it would benefit many wealthy Americans.

Ms Warren said that the current total US student debt of $1.5 trillion (£1.2 trillion) reflects a “failed experiment” by the federal and state governments to “cut taxes for billionaires and giant corporations and offload the cost of higher education onto students and their families”.

Her plan would make four years of public college free to everyone. It also would cancel existing student debt on a sliding scale tied to income, to a maximum of $50,000 in forgiveness for those with less than $100,000 in household income. The moves would be funded by an “ultra-millionaire tax” of 2 per cent per year on the 75,000 US families with at least $50 million in assets.

Ms Warren offered the idea just days after Mr Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, said that his understanding of progressive politics would not allow him to endorse a free-college concept. That’s because “free college” would mean those who enjoy the career and salary advantages of college would be subsidised by those who do not, Mr Buttigieg explained.

Virtually all the Democratic contenders for the presidency – including Seth Moulton of Massachusetts, who became the 19th Democrat in the race on 22 April – have endorsed some type of steps to reduce college costs.

But until Ms Warren set out her plan, only Bernie Sanders of Vermont had clearly called for four years of free college for everyone. As such, her announcement could force Democrats challenging US president Donald Trump to speak even more clearly about which students they believe should be eligible for what levels of tuition assistance.

Democrats will keep pushing some concept of “free college” on the campaign trail because of its importance to voters, especially younger ones, said Beth Popp Berman, an associate professor of sociology at the University at Albany who specialises in education.

But the debate over the actual meaning of the term appears likely to become “a real fracture line within the party”, Dr Berman said.


Academics and university leaders will discuss how universities play an effective role in supporting civic efforts to create a more inclusive society, and how much they can intervene in progressive social movements without being seen as politically partisan, at Times Higher Education’s Teaching Excellence Summit, which is taking place at Western University, in London, Ontario, Canada, from 4-6 June.

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