what the student debt proposals convey

Elizabeth Warren proposes to pay off $50,000 of college debt for everyone with household income under $100,000. Bernie Sanders proposes to pay off all $1.5 trillion of today’s student debt. They also offer proposals for making college more affordable later.

I am worried that both of these proposals–especially Sanders’–convey the message that Democrats and liberals represent high-status people who hold and value formal education. The reality is close to that: Democratic voters in 2018 were a coalition of whites with lots of education plus people of color from across the educational spectrum.

2018 national exit poll results

Directing financial support to higher education–and specifically retiring the debt of people who have already accumulated college debt–is an indication of the candidates’ priorities. I fear they will alienate people who don’t have or necessarily want advanced formal education. One of the major political cleavages of our age (also seen in Europe) divides knowledge-workers from people who work with their hands. The risk here is placing liberals and Democrats firmly on the knowledge-workers’ side. Or, as Antonio Gramsci would say, the “organic ideology” of a governing class dominated by the intelligentsia will favor spending money on education above almost anything else.

I do understand the following arguments. Education should be understood as a public good, not just an investment in the income prospects of the individual student. We already treat k-12 education as a public good and an entitlement. Since college now confers the same advantage that high school did half a century ago, it should be treated the same.

Furthermore, programs without means tests tend to be protected and reasonably well funded, whereas programs for the poor tend to be poor programs. Examples of successful universal programs include Social Security and Medicare here and most of the European welfare state.

Finally, even when a program covers wealthy people, federal income taxes (as opposed to other taxes) are collected in a pretty progressive way, so most of the cost falls on the wealthy.

On the other hand, as Jordan Weissman notes, one-time debt cancellation is not an entitlement or a program built for sustainability. Moreover, Sanders’ plan involves truly regressive spending. Families earning $173k or more hold an average debt of nearly $50k, which the federal government would hand them as tax-free income under his plan.

You could counter that families in the bottom quartile–who have real need–hold an average of $26k in college debt, usually more than their whole annual household income, and forgiveness would make the most difference to them. But it would also cost $1.5 trillion that could be spent on other things. And yes, even if the President of the United States calls himself a socialist, he’ll have limited resources and will have to choose. For instance, that’s $1.5 trillion that could have been added to a Green New Deal.

These proposals have a communicative goal. They convey that education is a public good and that we should all benefit from government support. The proposals are very unlikely to pass as written, and if they fail, they will prove to be mainly symbolic. Even if they pass, they will still have symbolic elements. For instance, the message that they cover everyone is meant to change opinions about government.

So I worry about what these ideas–especially Sanders’–actually convey. Democrats, especially White Democrats, have typically benefited from formal education and value it in everything they say and do. They admire science, professionals, credentials. If a Democratic president and Congress spend $1.5 trillion to subsidize higher education for people like themselves, that will cement the party’s class position.

See also college and mobility; what does the European Green surge mean?; working-class people versus elites on education; and why the white working class must organize

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.