Biden proposes free tuition plan, adopting part of progressive agenda

Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden talk before a debate in Charleston, S.C., on Feb. 25.
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

Joe Biden, offering an olive branch to the party’s left in advance of his debate Sunday night with Sen. Bernie Sanders, expanded his higher education platform to offer free tuition at public colleges and universities for students whose family incomes are less than $125,000 a year.

The new proposal, released by his campaign on Sunday afternoon, goes beyond Biden’s original proposal to provide free tuition only to students attending two-year community colleges. It is more limited than Sanders’ plan to eliminate tuition and fees at two- and four-year public colleges for students regardless of income.

Still, the Biden campaign presented the proposal as a form of outreach to unify the party as his bid for the nomination approaches the point where he will have an insurmountable lead in delegates to the party convention.


The new education plan was unveiled two days after Biden announced he was embracing a bankruptcy reform plan that was a cornerstone campaign issue for another former rival on the party’s left, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

“We need to unite the country and bring all of the best minds to the table. Biden is — and as President will continue to be — open to the best ideas to make this a reality, regardless of where they come from,” Biden’s campaign statement said.

Sanders, in a statement, said Biden’s plan did not go far enough.

“It’s great that Joe Biden is now supporting a position that was in the Democratic platform four years ago. Now we have to go much further,” the statement said. “We need to make all public universities, colleges and trade schools tuition-free for everyone like our high schools are. We need to cancel all student debt. And we can fund it with a small tax on Wall Street speculation.”

Biden is heading into Sunday’s debate with a sizable lead in the convention delegate count — about 150, according to the latest count by the Associated Press. Tuesday brings primaries in four delegate-rich states — Ohio, Florida, Arizona and Illinois — that favor him and promise to leave him with an even larger lead.

But he faces a challenge garnering support among young people and progressives who have flocked to the campaigns of Sanders and Warren. The primaries have seen a sometimes-bitter split between the party’s progressive and moderate factions, which Biden will need to bridge in order to defeat President Trump in the general election.

Biden offered conciliatory words to Sanders supporters when he spoke Tuesday after clobbering him in another round of primaries. But Sanders warned in a speech Wednesday that Biden would have to do more to embrace progressive policies if he wants to galvanize young voters and the left to beat Trump.

Education offers a promising path to a middle ground because the candidates’ policy differences have tended to be a matter of degree, not principle.


Both Sanders and Warren proposed making public college tuition free regardless of income. The Sanders campaign said it would provide at least $48 billion per year to eliminate tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities, tribal colleges, community colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeship programs.

“Everyone deserves the right to a good higher education if they choose to pursue it, no matter their income,” the campaign said about the plan.

That proposal went considerably beyond legislation Sanders introduced in Congress in 2017 with Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), which set a $125,000 income cap on the free-tuition eligibility at four-year public colleges —essentially what Biden is now adopting. At the time, they estimated their bill would cover about 80% of the student population while making community college tuition- and fee-free for all.

The Warren bankruptcy reform plan was a cornerstone not only of her campaign but of her career as a law professor and researcher. Her plan calls for making it easier for debt-ridden people to find relief through bankruptcy and to discharge student-loan debt and other changes to help struggling families.

In 2005, when Congress passed a law that restricted bankruptcy filings, Warren and Biden had a deep and public disagreement. As a senator from Delaware, whose courts handle many bankruptcies from around the country, he sided with industry-backed proposals that made debt relief harder.

Now, Biden’s campaign said in a statement Sunday, “he agrees firmly with Senator Warren that we need to fundamentally reshape our bankruptcy system.”

A Biden aide said the campaign had been in touch with Warren’s staff, who had been given a head’s-up that Biden would be endorsing her bankruptcy plan. They had not been in touch with the Sanders camp, the aide said.