2020 candidates are talking about ‘free college.’ Here’s what they’re not telling you

Students protest tuition hikes at a 2016 University of California Board of Regents meeting in San Francisco.
(Jeff Chiu / Associated Press)

It has become a cliche of this campaign: A White House hopeful pauses from a speech to invite beleaguered university graduates to shout out the size of the debt they carry — as if competing in an auction — and the numbers bellowed from the crowd spiral upward.

In a nation where student loan debt has reached a staggering $1.6 trillion — more than double the amount just a decade ago — the call-outs are potent political theater. The promise of free college has catapulted from the fringe in 2015, when Sen. Bernie Sanders muscled the idea into presidential politics, to an urgent place in the race this year. Even President Trump is trying to get in front of it.

But the debate over college affordability involves difficult issues of equity, class privilege and how best to target government spending. It has divided Democratic presidential hopefuls and created a gap between the candidates and those on the front lines of college affordability, many of whom have mixed feelings about vows to make a four-year degree free.


The presidential candidates are loudly joining the free-college conversation after some 20 states — including California — have launched their own initiatives. Many higher-education scholars see a serious shortcoming in every one of those plans: They tend to give the most benefit to Americans who need a boost the least.

“It is hard to do stuff to make higher education cost less that is universal without tilting those benefits to higher-income people,” said Matthew Chingos, vice president of education data and policy at the Urban Institute.

Moreover, many of the plans being discussed in the campaign fail to put a priority on the biggest problems that lower-income students grapple with — principally, living costs.

The politically tidy story told on the stump about young college graduates and their debts has little to do with some of the biggest reasons a college degree remains inaccessible to many Americans, experts in the field note.

“A lot of the plans being rolled out” in the campaign and in statehouses “are focusing on students on the higher end of the economic spectrum, who are not facing the most dire circumstances,” said Mamie Voight, vice president of policy research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington-based think tank.

Longtime veterans of the fight for college access are pleased by all the candidate attention but can’t help but bristle at how they have framed the issue. Using university alumni with student debt in the six figures as campaign props can particularly exasperate the experts, who note that six-figure borrowers often have graduate or professional degrees that position them well in the economy.


Borrowers carrying $5,000 or less of student debt are twice as likely to have dropped out and defaulted.

“It takes additional political will to stand up and say, ‘We are going to target dollars in the way they most need to be targeted,’ ” Voight said.

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Only a third of American adults have a four-year degree. And although the cost of attending a four-year college has risen sharply, people with those degrees still earn significantly more on average than people without.

White voters without college degrees have been drifting away from the Democratic Party. The candidates most focused on winning back that group are not embracing free four-year degrees for everybody.

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, for example, has said the nation can’t afford it.

Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., told a group of college students in Boston in April, “I have a hard time getting my head around the idea of a majority who earn less because they didn’t go to college subsidizing a minority who earn more because they did.”


The current Democratic leader in polls, Joe Biden, has been focusing on making community college accessible and free — a proposal that would provide more of its benefit to lower-income students and one that President Obama pushed in his second term. Since he joined the race, there have been no echoes of Biden’s musings while vice president that four-year degrees at public institutions should be paid for entirely by government.

But most of the other top-tier candidates, many of whom hope to appeal to millennial generation voters, are pushing a vision much more expansive — and costly — than Biden’s. They have leapfrogged even the ambitious proposal that Sanders first unveiled four years ago, when he pushed the idea of free tuition at all public universities.

The $47-billion annual price tag of the Sanders plan is intimidating. But the proposal several candidates have backed, one put forward initially by Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii, would go much further and cost much more.

Central to Schatz’s plan is the recognition that low-income students need a lot more than free tuition, for which many already qualify under existing government programs. The big barrier for many students is the cost of living.

In California, for example, tuition accounts for less than half of the $34,500 annual cost of attending a UC school. The Oakland-based Institute for College Access and Success found that low-income students often spent more at California’s community colleges than at UC campuses, because at community colleges they had less access to grants for non-tuition expenses.

The total out-of-pocket cost of attending UCLA for an economically disadvantaged student is $8,800. The net cost for that same student at Santa Monica College is $15,700, according to the group.


Schatz’s plan for “debt-free college” would provide low-income students money for living expenses. Several of the 2020 hopefuls have supported the idea, including Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

Schatz is unapologetic about his measure’s whopping price tag — $90 billion the first year alone.

“This is not just a macroeconomic question, it is almost a question of national identity,” Schatz said in an interview. “This is the first generation that is being put in a position in which it is not always smart to pursue a four-year higher-education degree. We are a wealthy society.”

Warren has laid out a detailed proposal for how it could all work in practice — a plan that tries to account for the needs of the most economically disadvantaged students, enable every American to attend public college “without paying a dime in tuition and fees” and, in addition, allow 42 million Americans who already have graduated and who have household incomes under $250,000 to wipe out up to $50,000 of student debt.

When she did, some liberal economists responded coolly, questioning whether the plan was the fairest and smartest way to spend so much money — an estimated $1.25 trillion over 10 years.

“Regressive, expensive, and full of uncertainties” is how Adam Looney, director of the Brookings Institution Center on Regulation and Markets, characterized Warren’s debt-forgiveness framework. In a blog post, he noted that only a third of the subsidy would go to families with incomes under $68,000.


“There is a real disconnect between the political conversation and the policy conversation,” said Lanae Erickson, senior vice president for social policy and politics at Third Way, the center-left advocacy group. “The political conversation often focuses on the problems of the type of upper-middle-class people who work on these presidential campaigns. The policy experts are more worried about the folks on the lower end of the income spectrum.”

Schatz disagrees.

“There is no reason for colleges and universities to bury their kids in debt,” he said. “We didn’t used to do it this way. Others countries don’t do it this way. It is not some function of capitalism that is necessary. We just have a backward system.”

Reforming that system is part of the Schatz plan. It seeks to keep down costs at public universities by requiring states to match the federal dollars. The idea is that that obligation would give states an incentive to control costs.

But the price tag for the federal government is still big. Schatz suggests that rolling back the Trump tax cuts would more than cover the bill, but some of the candidates supporting his bill already have other plans for that money. That leaves candidates struggling with how big a program voters will be willing to back.

“There are a million ways to talk yourself out of something,” Schatz said. “But we have a massive student debt crisis, and people across the country are demanding we do something about it.

“The idea that people will vote against Democrats because we are doing too much to help young people sounds to me like a Republican talking point.”