Can Elizabeth Warren Fix Higher Education?
The Massachusetts senator believes college should be free for everyone
Last week, presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren unveiled her sweeping plan to transform higher education funding in America. Her package — which calls for large-scale college debt forgiveness, a significant expansion of the Pell grant, federal funds for historically black colleges and universities, and a big federal investment in making public two- and four-year colleges tuition-free — would offer benefits to both past and future students.
While Warren’s ideas around debt forgiveness have attracted perhaps the most attention, the rest of the proposal is just as ambitious. Under her plan, public institutions would become free for all students, no matter their income level; lower-income students, meanwhile, would have expanded access to Pell grants, allowing them to obtain a degree without borrowing lots of money to cover their living expenses.
Warren’s attention to this issue is driven by a landscape in which the rising cost of college is stressing students and families across the income spectrum. In its most recent report on college pricing, the College Board, the nonprofit that distributes the SAT, calculated that average tuition and fees at private four-year colleges shot up from $17,010 in 1988 to $35,830 in 2018. Tuition at public four-year colleges increased from $3,360 to $10,230 during the same time period. Community college tuition grew from $1,700 to $3,660. (Real earning growth during this time period, by contrast, has been disappointing.)
At the same time, while more Americans than ever are enrolling in college, completion rates are nothing short of abysmal, particularly at the community colleges that serve many low-income and first-generation college students: Less than 40 percent of first-time college students who enrolled in community college in 2012 had completed a credential within six years.
Warren’s plan is big, bold, and ambitious. But given the problems plaguing America’s postsecondary education system, is it enough to restore the traditional promise of higher education? Will it ensure that the many young (and not so young) Americans who enroll in college with the goal of obtaining a valuable credential or degree…