This article is one of a series of summaries of progressive federal policy ideas written by Think policy fellows. Think does not have a position on any of the proposals mentioned in this summary as we are focused on state-level policy, rather we offer these descriptions as helpful tools for candidates and elected officials who may be interested or face questions on these topics. 

To deal with the skyrocketing amount of student loan debt and price of college tuition, Senator Sanders and Warren have called for eliminating student loan debt and making public college free.[1] The memo outlines the similarities and differences between both of these plans.  

Main Similarities

  • Eliminate public college tuition and fees: Both plans eliminate tuition and fees at public two-year and four-year colleges or universities. 
  • Pay off almost all private and public student loan debt: However, both pay off almost all existing private and publicstudent loan debt. Any forgiven student loan debt is not taxed as income in both plans; currently, income-contingent and income-based repayment plans for student loans tax any debt forgiven.
  • Expand need-based aid for other college expenses: To cover other expenses, like room and board or books, both plans increase and expand eligibility for Pell Grants, a federal grant for lower/middle-income students.
  • Support minority institutions: They also carve out funds for historically black colleges (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions.[2]
  • Incentivize states to participate by sharing costs and giving significant federal dollars: Each has accountability metrics connected incentives, though Senator Sanders’ incentive mechanism is more fleshed out. Since states control public 4-year colleges in the United States, both plans incentivize states to sign onto the bill (it is illegal to force states to sign-on). While Warren does not specify how she will do this – outside of “partner[ing] with states to split the costs” – Sanders’ offers a two-to-one federal matching grant ($48 billion per year) to states that increase their funding to public colleges enough to eliminate undergraduate tuition and fees.
  • Mandate reporting, maintaining state funding for higher education, and spending money on instructional needs: To receive these incentives, Senator Warren requires public institutions to annually report how they are helping minorities and achieving the policy’s goals. She also mandates states keep their current levels of funding for academic instruction and need-based aid. Senator Sanders ties federal education funding to similar criteria including that states maintain their existing higher education funding and aid, rely less on adjunct faculty, prove they will cover all costs of higher education for families under $25,000, and bans new federal dollars from being used for merit-aid, non-academic buildings, or administrators’ salaries.
  • Make the rich pay for it: Both senators pay for their plans by predominantly taxing the wealthy, though some of the taxes may impact middle-class households. Sanders imposes financial transaction taxes on stock trading by investment houses, hedge funds, and other speculators. These include a 0.5% tax on stock trades, a 0.1% fee on bonds, and a 0.005% fee on derivatives. However, an individual who makes less than $50,000 or a household with less than $75,000 would not pay any of these taxes. Warren imposes a 2% annual tax on the wealth of Americans who have more than $50 million in net worth (the top 0.1% in the U.S.) and an additional 1% on net worth above $1 billion.

 Key Differences

  • Scope of student loan forgiveness: Senator Sanders proposes eliminating 100% of the outstanding student loan debt; Senator Warren only erases 75% because she does not provide debt relief for households over $250,000. She forgives $50,000 worth of debt for household incomes under $100,000 and offers “substantial debt cancellation” to households with incomes between $100,000 and $250,000. Sanders provides equal relief to all incomes.
  • Sanders lowers undergraduate loan rates and increases work-study: Since Senator Sanders’ bill is more fleshed out than Senator Warrens’ proposal, he also includes the following: capping undergraduate student loan interest rates at 1.88%[3] and triples funding for the work-study program. But, either candidate’s final bill would likely include versions of these measures.

Benefits

Supporters argue the following benefits:

  • Supercharges the economy: Financial burdens from college debt cause fewer people to buy homes and start new businesses. Alleviating student debt will enable more people to engage in these activities and increase consumer spending. These three areas (homeownership, entrepreneurship, and consumer spending) are key drivers of economic growth. Finally, studies show investments in higher education provide huge dividends.
  • Helps all students enter and finish college: The sticker-price of 4-year college deters students from attending. In the long run, the financial strain – and need to work to cover expenses – causes many to drop out. Roughly one-thirdof students do not receive a four-year public college degree in six years; two-thirds of students fail to graduate from two-year public colleges in six years.
  • Supports low-income students and minorities: Currently, if a family makes above $90,000, students have a 1 in 2 chanceof earning an undergraduate degree. That chance drops to 1 in 17 if a family makes less than $35,000. Student debt does far more damage to the financial prospects for minorities and poor students.
  • Corrects a broken system that has ravaged a public good: Proponents argue debt-free public college and eliminating student debt will stop the predatory practices of for-profit colleges, curb the run-away cost increases of higher education, and stop businesses from keeping younger graduates under-employed.

Republican Opposition

The most common attacks from Republicans include the following:

  • Absurdly expensive at the expense of other priorities: In total, Warren estimates her plan would cost the federal government $25 trillion over a decade; Sander estimates his plan would cost $2.2 trillion.[4]In 2020, the federal government is estimated to spend $4.7 trillion. If this is constant for the next ten years, Sanders’ plan would raise federal expenditures by roughly 5%; Warren’s, a little under 3%. This takes money away from other needs, like infrastructure, social security, healthcare, and the military.
  • Unfair to responsible borrowers and planners: These bills punish families who saved for college and students who paid off their debts. They do not reimburse individuals for these expenses or reward them for their dutiful payment.
  • Incentivizes laziness and not paying your dues. Some decry that these bills absolve students from being responsible for their actions. This argument especially rings true for older Americans, who were able to cover their more affordable college tuition and fees. An NPR/PBS/NewsHour/Marist poll shows over 50% of Americans over 45 do not support free college compared to 62% of those under 45 who do.
  • Gives citizen-only-benefits to illegal immigrants: Democrats prohibit discriminating based on citizenship status, which Republicans can latch onto and claim these bills take taxpayer money to give benefits that should be reserved for U.S. citizens.

Democratic Opposition

Other Democrats also attack debt-free public college– even though all of the presidential candidates acknowledge the crisis.[5]They have two main critiques of the model:

  • Free college helps the rich: Since rich families are more likely to send their kids to college than poorer families, free college helps the wealthy more. One study shows more than a third of the benefits of free college would go to households earning over $120,000. The government would be subsidizing education for the wealthy (though, progressive taxes to pay for free college make this claim tenuous). 
  • Republican states won’t bite: Since states oversee public universities and craft their budgets, a federal plan to make 4-year university free need states to voluntarily sign-on. However, some believe Republican-controlled state legislatures and governors won’t agree to a too-liberal plan given the failure of many Republican-states to sign onto Obamacare. This is a key issue because Republicans dominate state legislatures.

Obama and Trump Administration Reforms

Over the past decade, few reforms have been implemented to address the skyrocketing increase in the cost of college after the 2008 recession. At the federal level, a new income-based repayment plan and public service loan forgiveness plan were created. The former requires students to pay 10% of their income for 20 years, forgiving any remaining debt. The latter forgives any remaining student debt for people in public professions after 10 years of payments.

The Trump administration has barely touched college affordability. It has only pushed for two bipartisan reforms to Pell Grants: making prisoners eligible and enabling tuition assistance for summer programs.


[1] Other Democrats have also introduced legislation to tackle this issue.  The main 2019 bills are the Debt-Free College Act and America’s College Promise Act.

[2] Sanders, in particular, provides significant assistance to Native American tribes.

[3] Though the bill eliminates tuition and fees, it seems that the 1.88% interest rate would be for students attending non-public colleges and universities or to help students in states that don’t sign onto the agreement.

[4] Tuition-free public college alone would cost $61 billion a year under Warren and $75 billion a year under Sanders. Warren's debt-relief plan would come with a one-time cost of $640 billion; Bernie’s plan is almost triple that cost: $1.45 trillion.

[5] Pete Buttigieg wants to double Pell grants and offer free tuition at public colleges for households earning less than $100,000. He also supports refinancing loans. Klobuchar supports increasing Pell Grants, free community college, and refinancing options. Biden supports free community college, debt relief for households under $25,000, and income-based repayment plans of twenty years that forgive the remaining debt. All the other candidate’s positions can be found here.