Democratic presidential hopefuls are full of ideas about what to do with the nation’s $1.6 trillion of student debt. Today, Senator Bernie Sanders announced the most expansive proposal of those the candidates have suggested thus far. Sanders, along with Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and Pramila Jayapal of Washington, introduced new legislation to cancel all student debt—yes, all student debt—and make public colleges debt-free.
The thing that most sets their proposal apart from others is that it includes no income or other restrictions, meaning even doctors and lawyers, who tend to carry a lot of debt but who also tend to be well paid, would be eligible. When asked at a press conference this morning why his proposal would extend to such top earners, Sanders responded, “I believe in universality, and that means if Donald Trump wants to send his kids to a public school, he can do that.” He stressed that “all Americans are entitled to Social Security, are entitled to Medicare, are entitled to education as a right.”
Sanders’s declaration highlights the divide between his campaign’s solution to the plight of the nation’s student borrowers, and that of Senator Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic primary’s other progressive staple. Warren’s debt-cancellation plan, which was announced alongside a slate of higher-education proposals in April, would cancel up to $50,000 of student debt for those who make less than $100,000 a year; those who earn more would get less relief, and the relief tapers out altogether for those earning more than $250,000 a year. The plan, she told me in a May interview, was designed to reduce, or at the very least not exacerbate, the glaring wealth disparity between black and white Americans.
“The fact that the debate has shifted to the point where we’re thinking about canceling 75 percent or all debt is significant,” Mark Huelsman, associate director of policy and research at Demos, a left-leaning think tank, told me this morning. As I wrote in June, in just under a dozen years, Democrats have gone from proposing relatively modest interventions targeted at reducing college costs to advocating for massive efforts to cancel student debt. The shift is the result of a combination of grassroots activism, the explosion of the total student-debt load, and politicians’ recognition of the scope of the issue.
The Warren and Sanders plans both have their benefits, Huelsman said. Warren’s more directly aims relief at the groups, particularly black Americans and low-income families, who need it the most. But income is not a perfect proxy for wealth—so, for instance, a black lawyer who comes from a poor family may have high earnings but may not be in the same financial position as his lawyer peers. Sanders’s plan would account for those high-income, low-wealth Americans who might be left out of the Warren plan. Universal cancellation also eliminates some of the need for additional bureaucracy, which would be required to implement a targeted plan.
Some of Sanders’s critics argue that rich students—the children of Donald Trump, the thought experiment goes—should pay off their debts themselves, without federal help. But the bill’s supporters point out that such people aren’t likely to be helped by the legislation anyway. “Let me say this,” Omar said during the press conference, “the children of Donald Trump aren’t taking out student loans. Canceling student loans is a problem of the poor and the middle class, not of the rich.”
That said, even if the children of Donald Trump were to be helped by the legislation, the ideology behind it would still fit squarely into Sanders’s broader worldview, Huelsman said. “It comes from a belief that it is self-evident that the government should provide certain public goods, and education is one of them,” he told me. Broad debt-cancellation and tuition-free college for all, then, are the tools to make that good accessible.
As the Democratic primary continues to take shape, how college should be paid for—and what should be done with the debt of those who have already borrowed—will be something voters will turn to in order to distinguish among the candidates. But however interesting the differences between Democrats on student debt seem now, they pale in comparison to the divide between Democrats and Republicans, which will be the more material difference to millions of Americans once the election is over, in November 2020.