Politics

Buttigieg, Sanders and Warren Debate: Free College for Some or for All?

A new policy debate is brewing between the left wing of the Democratic presidential field and Pete Buttigieg, a more moderate candidate, over eliminating public college tuition — and the dispute has scrambled the usual rhetorical lines.

The Democratic field is largely united in calling for free college tuition in at least some circumstances. But left-leaning candidates like Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren want universal programs, meaning public colleges and universities would be free for anyone, regardless of income. Mr. Buttigieg, by contrast, recently released a plan that would not apply to families earning more than $150,000 a year.

“I believe we should move to make college affordable for everybody,” he said in an ad released last week. “There are some voices saying, ‘Well, that doesn’t count unless you go even further — unless it’s even free for the kids of millionaires.’ But I only want to make promises that we can keep.”

This was an implicit attack on Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren, though the ad did not name them, and it quickly set off a back-and-forth.

Ms. Warren said higher education was a basic good and should be free for all just as public K-12 education is. But Mr. Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., said that many Americans chose not to attend college and that it was elitist to suggest it was equivalent to K-12 schooling.

Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to Mr. Sanders, called Mr. Buttigieg the elitist, saying, “The reason why people aren’t going to college is because not everybody can afford to go to college.”

What they’re fighting about

The key question is whether public colleges and universities should be free for everyone (we’ll refer to this as a universal program) or only for people below a certain income level (a means-tested program).

Notably, Mr. Buttigieg and his advisers are making the sort of populist argument — why should the government spend taxpayer dollars to help millionaires? — that we more often hear from Mr. Sanders and Ms. Warren.

“I’m all for gathering tax revenue from millionaires and billionaires,” Mr. Buttigieg told reporters in Birmingham, Ala., on Wednesday. “I’m skeptical of spending it on millionaires and billionaires.”

His plan would make public colleges and universities free for families earning less than $100,000 a year and reduce tuition on a sliding scale for families earning $100,000 to $150,000 a year. He also says he would increase Pell grants to help low-income students with housing and transportation costs. His full plan is here.

Mr. Sanders, whose 2016 campaign brought free college into mainstream political discussion, wants to “eliminate tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities, tribal colleges, community colleges, trade schools and apprenticeship programs.” His full plan, which would also cancel the nation’s $1.6 trillion of student debt, is here.

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