Sen. Warren: Free Public College for All; Student Debt Cancellation for Most

Susan Jones | April 22, 2019 | 10:19am EDT
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Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) joins Sen. Bernie Sanders at a news conference in November 2017. (File Photo by Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

( - "I’m calling for something truly transformational," Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a former Harvard Law school professor, wrote at the blog site Medium on Monday: "Universal free public college and cancellation of student loan debt."

Among other things, Warren's plan would prohibit public colleges from considering citizenship status or criminal history in admissions.

Warren spoke about her plan on CNN Monday morning:

“Anyone who's got outstanding student loan debt can have up to $50,000 worth of student loan debt canceled out so long as their income is under $100,000, and then it steps in, up to there's no help for anybody whose family income is above $250,000. And that's it. The debt is gone."

Warren said her plan would reduce student loan debt for more than 95 percent of the almost 45 million Americans who have such debt. And she says it would wipe out student loan debt entirely for more than 75 percent of those 45 million Americans.

"Once we’ve cleared out the debt that’s holding down an entire generation of Americans, we must ensure that we never have another student debt crisis again,” Warren wrote. “We can do that by recognizing that a public college education is like a public K-12 education--a basic public good that should be available to everyone with free tuition and zero debt at graduation."

She wants to give every American (and apparently some non-citizens) the opportunity to attend a two- or four-year public college "without paying a dime in tuition or fees."

"There's a real access problem for low-income students, for students of color, and that is, it's not just paying the tuition. It's how they pay for books. It's how they pay for the expenses of having a baby taken care of if they already have a child at home or being able to cover commuting expenses. Or maybe it's a chance to live in a dorm," Warren told CNN.

"Some people will say we can’t afford this plan," Warren wrote at Medium. "That’s nonsense. The entire cost of my broad debt cancellation plan and universal free college is more than covered by my Ultra-Millionaire Tax—a 2-percent annual tax on the 75,000 families with $50 million or more in wealth. For decades, we’ve allowed the wealthy to pay less while burying tens of millions of working Americans in education debt. It’s time to make different choices," she wrote.

Warren said her plan goes beyond free public college and debt-forgiveness.

She would spend an additional $100 billion over the next ten years on Pell Grants, expanding the number of people who are eligible for them.

And she wants to address "inequities" in higher education so it better serves poor and minority communities by doing the following:

-- Create a fund for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs). The fund will have a minimum of $50 billion, but the Secretary of Education will have the authority to increase the amount of money in the fund as needed to ensure that spending per-student at those schools is comparable to colleges in the area.

-- Make additional federal funding available to states that demonstrate substantial improvement in enrollment and graduation rates for lower-income students and students of color.

-- After an appropriate transition period, ban for-profit colleges from receiving any federal dollars (including military benefits and federal student loans), so they can no longer use taxpayer dollars to enrich themselves while targeting lower-income students, service members, and students of color and leaving them saddled with debt.

-- Require public colleges to complete an annual audit that identifies issues creating shortfalls in enrollment and graduation rates for lower-income students and students of color and that proposes steps to improve those rates.

-- Prohibit public colleges from considering citizenship status or criminal history in admissions decisions.

Warren said "experts" expect her debt-cancellation plan to create a one-time cost to the government of $640 billion. The Universal Free College program brings the total cost of the program to roughly $1.25 trillion over ten years.

"The actual costs of these new ideas are likely to be even less than that," she wrote: "Experts find that my debt cancellation plan will create an economic stimulus, and study after study shows that investments in higher education provide huge returns for every dollar.

"But even setting aside the eventual returns to these investments, we can fully cover the cost of these ideas with revenue from my Ultra-Millionaire Tax on the wealthiest 75,000 families in the country—those with fortunes of $50 million or more.

"We can address the student loan crisis and cancel debt for families that are struggling. We can provide truly universal free college. We can fix some of the structural problems that are preventing our higher education system from fairly serving lower-income students and students of color. We can make big structural change and create new opportunities for all Americans."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in 2015 introduced legislation, co-sponsored by Warren, to make public colleges and universities tuition free. He would have paid for it in part with a tax on Wall Street transactions.

Warren on Monday said her plan "goes further" than Sanders' does.

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