Democratic contenders for the presidential nomination are talking a lot about higher education — or at least certain aspects of it: free tuition, student debt bailouts, more Pell Grants, special funding for historically black colleges and universities. In other words, “free” everything except free speech.
The National Association of Scholars (NAS) just released a new tool to help track what presidential candidates are saying about higher education. We chart the top five Democratic candidates on 10 different issues, ranging from free college to affirmative action. We picked the issues that generated proposals from the most candidates.
Over time, we’ll add more candidates and more topics. (You can view the list, candidate by candidate, or download a version of the chart in Excel, allowing you to sort by topic.)
You can see that all of the top five candidates have put forward plans to make college free — for at least some students at some universities. The most radical plans come from Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Both want to cancel tuition for all students at public two- and four-year colleges and universities and to retain Pell Grants to cover books and living costs for poor students.
Sanders specifically includes tribal colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeships in his free college proposal; Warren doesn’t mention them. Both would increase funding for private historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions (MSIs), with the goal of eliminating tuition at these institutions as well. In short, everyone besides students at non-HBCU/MSI private institutions would pay no tuition.
The most conservative plan comes from Joe Biden, who has said he supports free community college for all students. In between are Kamala Harris (free community college and “debt-free” HBCUs and MSIs) and Pete Buttigieg (“debt-free” public college for low-income students).
Outlandish Proposals — And How to Pay for Them
All five have also commented on student loan forgiveness, ranging from Sanders, who would cancel all $1.6 trillion in student debt immediately, to Harris, who would forgive up to $20,000 in student debt for Pell Grant recipients who start a business that operates for three years in “disadvantaged communities.”
NAS’s chart also shows how candidates would pay for all this new spending. Notably, only two candidates have even bothered to explain where the money will come from. Sanders proposes — no surprise — a “Wall Street speculation tax,” involving a “0.5 percent tax on stock trades, … a 0.1 percent fee on bond trades, and a 0.005 percent fee on derivative trades.” His plan would cost about $2.2 trillion over 10 years.
Warren acknowledges her free college plan and debt bailout plan (which would cancel $50,000 in student loans for everyone with a household income under $100,000, and a portion of student loans for those with household incomes between $100,000 and $250,000) would require “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.”
But not to worry, because “the entire cost … is more than covered by my Ultra-Millionaire Tax — a 2% annual tax on the 75,000 families with $50 million or more in wealth.” To be clear, that’s a tax on owning wealth, not on earning income.
Four of the top five contenders — all but Harris — have proposals for affirmative action. Most notably, Warren wants all public colleges to complete “an annual audit” to identify and fix any “shortfalls” in “enrollment and graduation rates for lower-income students and students of color.” Biden would reinstate the Obama-era guidance on affirmative action, which declared racial preferences a compelling state interest.
Three candidates take aim at for-profit institutions. Warren goes the furthest: She would “ban for-profit colleges from receiving any federal dollars (including military benefits and federal student loans).”
Forgetting the Purpose of Higher Education
None of these proposals will fix higher education. Making public universities tuition-free will only drive down quality and incentivize ill-prepared students to spend four to six years muddling through race-class-gender theory. It will kill most private colleges. At a time America’s college-age population is shrinking and a booming economy is pulling students into the workforce, Democratic candidates would play favorites propping up public universities with a multibillion-dollar bonanza.
Bailing out student debt hurts responsible adults who lived frugally and paid off their loans. Affirmative action judges candidates on the basis of their skin — exactly contrary to the American ethos. Scapegoating for-profits fails to recognize their agility and place in the American higher education ecosystem.
These plans also leave out a lot. They say nothing about protecting free speech, arguably the greatest crisis facing higher education today. They do nothing to curtail the huge, government spending-induced inflation in college costs.
This isn’t a partisan critique. Republicans have done nothing this Congress to protect campus free speech. President Trump’s higher education agenda, released in March, while a big improvement over his Democratic rivals’, is nothing much to get excited over. Candidates and lawmakers of both parties should look at NAS’s proposal for overhauling higher education, “The Freedom to Learn Amendments,” which prioritizes freedom of speech and federal deregulation.
Redistributing tax dollars to shovel students into college won’t improve higher education. It’s clear Democratic candidates fail to grasp the fundamental questions of what higher education is for and why intellectual freedom matters — namely, the pursuit of truth, which is something money can’t buy.