The Democrats have “owned” higher education for several decades now – largely since Reagan actively cut student aid in the early 1980s. For a long time, Democratic policies were about “capturing the middle class”, partly through targeted affordability measures (Bill Clinton’s 1996 tax deductions for higher education, for instance, which excluded low-income families by counting Pell grants against the deduction) and partly by making themselves like the “party of modernity” through investments in science. In particular, the Obama administration spent tens of billions at various science agencies as part of the 2009 American recovery and Reconstruction Act. It’s not really a surprise that higher education is an area where Democratic hopefuls try to outbid one another.
However, the science part is limited in this contest. Probably the most interesting proposal is Elizabeth Warren’s idea to create a new scientific granting council, the National Institutes of Clean Energy, funded at $400 billion over ten years (American politicians always value their promises over ten years, which takes a bit of getting used to), to sit alongside the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF). This is partly a pro-Green thing, but it’s also meant as an economic development tool by creating more science and innovation-related jobs. Buttigieg’s plan is probably closest to Warren’s, offering $200 billion for something much less specific. Sanders has an incredibly detailed “Green New Deal” platform, but it’s mostly a jobs deal with a green veneer. There’s only one throwaway, non-costed lined saying he would “invest in research”. Biden’s proposals are mostly about revitalizing manufacturing with the occasional “smart cities” reference, which should be terrifying if you’ve at all been following the Sidewalk Toronto saga; I think this means he’s fine with a Blue Collar plus Tech-Bro coalition.
This time out for Democrats, the focus is on college affordability. My impression is that they no longer see this issue as one which expands their reach into the center of American politics, but rather as one which plays to their base (and in a world where voting patterns are increasingly age-based, there is logic to this). This isn’t about handing money to institutions to make education better (though there is a surprising unanimity about the need to funnel a lot more money into minority-serving institutions), but rather more of a bidding war about how much money can be poured into the hands of students and young people.
All four main candidates are in favour of some form of free tuition. For Biden, it is free community college, more or less on the same basis President Obama outlined in his 2015 Budget
. Buttigieg is running on a platform very similar to the one Hillary Clinton proposed in 2016
(generous income-targeted free tuition for undergraduate education at public 2- and 4-year institutions), but with slightly different income cut-offs. Sanders and Warren want full free undergraduate tuition at public 2- and 4-year institutions. All these programs are predicated on Congressional approval and states coming up with 50% of the money, neither of which I suspect is actually going to happen, but whatever. It’s a primary and policies are as much about showing your colours as suggesting anything practical.
The biggest gap between the top four concerns Pell (i.e. income-based) Grants and loan repayment. Buttigieg and Warren (and probably Sanders too, though it’s tough to tell because he provides no numbers) are in the same ballpark when it comes to Pell Grant increases; Biden’s proposal comes in at nearly two-and-a-half times as large ($280 billion vs. $120 billion).
Buttigieg is on the low end of the pack here, with promises around auto-enrolment of borrowers in income-related payment plans, and loan forgiveness for graduates in public-service professions and for some graduates of high-cost private for-profit programs (details are sketchy here). Biden matches Buttigieg on the public service loan forgiveness, but also has a plan to radically reduce payments on government student loans, limiting them to just 5% of earnings, with forgiveness after 20 years. I have not seen a costing on that, but it would have to be massive, maybe as much as $500 billion, and a very high percentage of students would receive some form of debt relief. It’s quite an expensive promise, but it has received little coverage because the Warren and Sanders plans are more eye-catching.
Warren opened the bidding by offering to forgive the first $50K of debt – regardless of source – for Americans earning under $100K (there’s a sliding scale for individuals earning 100-$250K, but no forgiveness above that level). She says this one-off jubilee will cost $650 billion and bring the outstanding debt of more than 75% of borrowers to zero. Sanders responded with a “forgive everything, everywhere” plan with a $1.6 trillion price tag.
Some elementary math here suggests that the extra $1 trillion Sanders is offering is going to be skewed towards higher-income Americans with professional degrees. And some elementary political economy analysis suggests that if this is popular once, then these one-off jubilees will happen repeatedly in the future, which means private institutions will have a strong incentive to raise tuition fees (which most will pay, anticipating a new jubilee will come one day soon), at exactly the time when a free-tuition plan requiring matching state dollars is squeezing public institutions. I don’t think the Sanders campaign intends this, but let’s just say that scanning for adverse consequences of big policy ideas doesn’t seem to be a Sanders strong point.