Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren Debate: Free College for Some or for All?

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A new policy debate is brewing between the left wing of the Democratic presidential field and Pete Buttigieg, a more moderate candidate, over eliminating public college tuition — and the dispute has scrambled the usual rhetorical lines.

The Democratic field is largely united in calling for free college tuition in at least some circumstances. But left-leaning candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren want universal programs, meaning public colleges and universities would be free for anyone, regardless of income. Mr. Buttigieg, by contrast, recently released a plan that would not apply to families earning more than $150,000 a year.

“I believe we should move to make college affordable for everybody,” he said in an ad released last week. “There are some voices saying, ‘Well, that doesn’t count unless you go even further — unless it’s even free for the kids of millionaires.’ But I only want to make promises that we can keep.”

This was an implicit attack on Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, though the ad did not name them, and it quickly set off a back-and-forth.

Ms. Warren said higher education was a basic good and should be free for all just as public K-12 education is. But Mr. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., said that many Americans chose not to attend college and that it was elitist to suggest it was equivalent to K-12 schooling.

Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Mr. Sanders, called Mr. Buttigieg the elitist, saying, “The reason why people aren’t going to college is because not everybody can afford to go to college.”

The key question is whether public colleges and universities should be free for everyone (we’ll refer to this as a universal program) or only for people below a certain income level (a means-tested program).

Notably, Mr. Buttigieg and his advisers are making the sort of populist argument — why should the government spend taxpayer dollars to help millionaires? — that we more often hear from Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren.

“I’m all for gathering tax revenue from millionaires and billionaires,” Mr. Buttigieg told reporters in Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday. “I’m skeptical of spending it on millionaires and billionaires.”

His plan would make public colleges and universities free for families earning less than $100,000 a year and reduce tuition on a sliding scale for families earning $100,000 to $150,000 a year. He also says he would increase Pell grants to help low-income students with housing and transportation costs. His full plan is here.

Mr. Sanders, whose 2016 campaign brought free college into mainstream political discussion, wants to “eliminate tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities, tribal colleges, community colleges, trade schools and apprenticeship programs.” His full plan, which would also cancel the nation’s $1.6 trillion of student debt, is here.

Ms. Warren’s proposal is similar: It would make all two- and four-year public colleges free, eliminating both tuition and fees. She would also cancel most, but not all, student debt, up to $50,000 per person. Her full plan is here.

(Mr. Buttigieg says he “will soon release details to address student debt burdens.”)

A number of other candidates have also called for some level of free or subsidized higher education. Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., the leader in national polls of the Democratic primary, has proposed free tuition at two-year community colleges but would not eliminate tuition at four-year institutions.

Some candidates have wrapped their free-tuition proposals into larger education platforms, making it difficult to directly compare the cost of every competing plan. But to give a general sense of the scale of a universal free-tuition system, Mr. Sanders estimates that his would cost “at least $48 billion per year.”

Mr. Buttigieg is claiming that universal plans, while advertised as progressive, are actually regressive, meaning the cost would fall more heavily on lower-income Americans.

But Ms. Warren and Mr. Sanders have not suggested asking low- and middle-income taxpayers to subsidize millionaires’ educations. They say they would pay for their plans the same way Mr. Buttigieg says he would pay for his: by increasing taxes on the wealthiest Americans.

There are disagreements among economists and politicians about whether any given tax-the-rich plan would generate enough revenue to cover the full array of social and economic programs that candidates like Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren have proposed. But no candidate has proposed funding free tuition with low- or middle-income Americans’ tax dollars.

That being said, wealthier families would receive a substantial share of the benefits of a universal free-tuition program. That’s because low-income students are likelier than high-income students to attend two-year colleges, and also because with need-based financial aid, they pay less tuition on average than high-income students.

Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign cited an Urban Institute study that found that 38 percent of the savings from a universal plan would go to families making $120,000 or more, while about 22 percent would go to families making less than $70,000.

It is worth noting that in terms of scope, the difference between universal and means-tested free tuition is relatively small. According to Mr. Buttigieg’s own plan, this entire debate is about, at most, 20 percent of public college students: He estimates that his proposal would provide free tuition for 80 percent and discounted tuition for another 10 percent.

“It probably does not change the numbers a lot,” said Ben Miller, the vice president for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, who has not endorsed any candidate’s plan. “The rhetorical point is that people who have the means to pay should pay something.”

That brings us to the bigger issue. This is not really a debate about fiscal policy. It’s about whether higher education should be a commodity or a public service.

Mr. Buttigieg envisions higher education as a product that should be more widely accessible. Some people will choose to use it and some people won’t, but since it’s already accessible to the children of wealthy Americans, why should they get free tuition?

“This is not the same thing as K-12,” he said in South Carolina this week. “This is not the same thing as Social Security. Because college is not for everybody.”

Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, by contrast, do envision higher education as a basic public service like K-12 education and libraries, which are offered to everyone regardless of income.

“Buttigieg cites stats about how many people CURRENTLY don’t have a college degree as alleged proof that folks without a degree don’t WANT universal access to free college,” David Sirota, a senior adviser to Mr. Sanders, tweeted.

Then there is the question of political feasibility, which Mr. Buttigieg emphasized in his ad (“I only want to make promises that we can keep”).

Opponents note that, historically, universal programs have been more popular and politically safer than ones with income limits. Social Security has survived conservative attacks for decades, largely because every American who receives a paycheck will eventually benefit from it. Food stamps are routinely vulnerable, largely because only part of the population is eligible.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York made this argument in a widely shared Twitter thread, writing that universal systems are “stronger” because “everyone’s invested.”

Asked about this argument, Mr. Buttigieg’s campaign said that by that logic, countless programs — food stamps, housing vouchers, the earned-income tax credit — would have to be made universal or eliminated. It is better, his team argued, to target programs to the people who need them most.

Reid J. Epstein contributed reporting.

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