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Warren's free-college-and-debt-forgiveness plan may be liberal, but it isn't progressive

Catherine Rampell on

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., might want to work on making her free-college-and-debt-forgiveness plan more progressive.

That might sound like a weird criticism for a candidate already vying for the left-most lane in the 2020 primary. But I don't mean "progressive" in the sense of "more palatable synonym for liberal."

I mean "progressive" in the sense of "more generous to the poor than the wealthy."

Warren deserves credit for focusing the 2020 campaign on America's need to invest in human capital. A college degree is one of the best investments a person can make, with higher average returns than stocks, bonds, gold, housing.

Some elements in Warren's plan are well-targeted to help the neediest and most marginal students enroll in postsecondary education, persist through graduation and succeed in the workplace. These include calls to expand Pell Grants, cover more non-tuition expenses and increase funding for historically black colleges and universities.

But the core, blockbuster components of Warren's plan -- free four-year public college and a debt jubilee -- are more problematic.

 

That's because they give bigger benefits to higher-income families than to lower-income ones that actually need the help. Which raises questions not only about fairness but also about wasted dollars.

Take the free tuition proposal. This would be a big giveaway to high-income families who plan to send their kids to college anyway and don't need to be comped. Free college means it's free for Bill Gates' kids, too, after all.

You would get more bang for the buck if you offered more generous aid to low-income students, phasing it out as you move up the income ladder: free tuition for the poor (plus assistance for non-tuition expenses, as Warren proposes), highly subsidized tuition for the middle class and full freight for Gates' children.

The student-loan forgiveness plan has similar problems.

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