Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont seeking the Democratic nomination for president, unveiled a bill Monday that would cancel all outstanding student debt.
The Sanders bill would cancel all of the roughly $1.5 trillion in student debt for 44 million Americans. Representative Ilan Omar, a Democrat of Minnesota and Representative Pramila Jayapal, a Democrat of Washington, will introduce a version of the bill in the House of Representatives.
He said it would cost approximately $2.2 trillion to cancel student debt and make all public colleges in the U.S. free.
‘In a generation hard hit by the Wall Street crash of 2008, it forgives all student debt and ends the absurdity of sentencing an entire generation to a lifetime of debt for the ‘crime’ of getting a college education.’
—Bernie Sanders, an Independent from Vermont seeking the Democratic nomination for president
“In a generation hard hit by the Wall Street crash of 2008, it forgives all student debt and ends the absurdity of sentencing an entire generation to a lifetime of debt for the ‘crime’ of getting a college education,” Sanders said during a press event announcing the bill.
With the bill, Sanders becomes the second presidential candidate after Elizabeth Warren to back the idea of student-debt cancellation. That two presidential candidates are supporting student-debt cancellation proposals is a signal of how far the idea has come from a radical notion that sprouted out of Occupy Wall Street to a point of debate in national politics.
It also indicates how far the Democratic party has moved on issues of student debt and college affordability. During the 2016 campaign, Sanders and Hilary Clinton proposed some version of free college, but neither tackled the issue of broad debt relief. Prior to 2016 election, few candidates offered sweeping proposals on college affordability.
Fast forward to 2019 and almost every candidate in the Democratic field supports some form of free college. There is a growing recognition, as represented by Sanders’ and Warren’s proposals, that even if college in the U.S. was free, something would need to be done to help the one-sixth of adults and one-third of young adults contending with a student loan, said Ben Miller, vice president of postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress Action Fund, an independent, nonpartisan policy institute and advocacy organization.
“Student-debt relief, along with some version of free or debt-free college is a pillar of economic policy or education policy for the Democratic party,” said Mark Huelsman, associate director policy and research at Demos, a left-leaning think tank.
Both plans change the conversation around student debt
Though their plans offer different approaches to cancelling student debt, both Sanders and Warren are proposing to pay for their plans either through a tax on wealthy Americans or activities that wealthy Americans are more likely to take part in.
Warren’s team estimates her plan would cost $640 billion and she plans to pay for it through a tax on the super rich. Sanders’ office estimates his bill would cost $2.2 trillion.
Warren’s team estimates her plan would cost $640 billion and she plans to pay for it through a tax on the super rich. Sanders’ office estimates his bill would cost $2.2 trillion and he proposes to pay for it through what he calls a Wall Street speculation tax on stock trades, bonds and derivatives.
Regardless of the proposals’ differences, they both represent a change in the way policymakers talk about student debt — as a systemic government failure, instead of an individual mistake that individuals have to find their way out of, said Julie Margetta Morgan, a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, a progressive think tank.
“I’m hopeful that now we’re going to see more and more people asking questions about the system as a whole and following their lead,” she said of Sanders and Warren.
Student-debt cancellation is popular among voters, but critics have concerns
While student debt cancellation appears popular among voters the idea faces an uphill battle to becoming reality. Conservative critics have argued that debt forgiveness would fail to hold colleges accountable for tuition increases over the past several decades and do little to encourage them to change the status quo.
‘Student debt relief, along with some version of free or debt-free college is a pillar of economic policy or education policy for the Democratic party.’
—Mark Huelsman, associate director policy and research at Demos
In addition, some critics have worried about the fairness of forgiving student debt to borrowers who have already paid their loans off. In response to those concerns, Sanders said during the press conference, “I would say to older people that when you went to college in America it was often tuition free. That is not the case today.”
What’s more, due to pay inequity and other systemic issues, black and female borrowers are more likely to still have student debt hanging around. Twelve years after entering college, white men have paid off 44% of their student-loan balance on average, according to a recent analysis from Huelsman at Demos. For white women, that share is 28%. Black women see their balances grow 13% on average during that period, while black men see their balances increase 11%.
Key differences between Warren and Sanders plans
Both Sanders’ and Warren’s proposals are broader and bolder than any other major policy idea on student debt, but there are key differences between the plans. Under Warren’s proposal, which she announced in April, borrowers earning up to $100,000 would have $50,000 of their student debt cancelled. It would also cancel some student debt for borrowers earning between $100,000 and $250,000. (Warren also plans to introduce legislation that mirrors this plan).
Sanders’ plan has no income cap. His campaign estimates that it would save the average student loan borrower $3,000 per year.
Both Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s proposals are broader and bolder than any other major policy idea on student debt, but there are key differences between the plans.
These differences highlight the two candidates’ varying approaches to this issue, experts say.
Critics have historically taken issue with cancelling all student debt because wealthier students are more likely to benefit — at least as measured in dollar amounts. That’s because borrowers with graduate degrees, who tend to earn more, also tend to have higher levels of student debt. Warren aimed to address those concerns with the income cap and to target student debt relief towards those who arguably need it the most.
The universality of Sanders’ plan, on the other hand, is a nod to the challenges student debt is presenting to the broader economy. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democrat from New York and progressive darling, spoke to this idea during the press conference announcing the bill.
“We are experiencing a systemic economic-wide threat” Ocasio-Cortez, 29, said of student loans. “It is unjust and it is a burden that no generation before had to encounter to the scale and the level that our generation has.”
Sanders’ office estimates that the proposal would generate an economic boost of $1 trillion over 10 years by allowing borrowers to buy homes, cars and make other big purchases. Indeed, other research indicates that cancelling student debt would have benefits for the economy and the individuals who get access to debt cancellation.
“The Sanders plan leans heavily into this is an economic problem and maybe as a moral problem as well and that justifies universal cancellation,” said Margetta Morgan. “The Warren plan is much more focused on the policy failure of the student loan program and who that policy failure affected.”
Sanders touts universality of his plan
Sanders’ proposal also reflects his historical preference for college affordability proposals that are “very broad based” and “very straightforward,” Miller said.
In 2016, Sanders proposed making public college tuition-free for all students. Though critics complained that families who could afford college would have benefited from the plan, supporters argued that the simplicity of the plan would make it easier for those who needed it the most to access it and would push powerful political constituencies to buy into it.
‘I happen to believe in universality. That means if Donald Trump wants to send his grandchildren to public school, he has the right to do that.’
“I happen to believe in universality,” Sanders said during the press conference announcing his student-debt relief proposal. “That means if Donald Trump wants to send his grandchildren to public school, he has the right to do that. Our response to making sure that this does not benefit the wealthy is in other areas where we are going to demand the wealthy and other corporations start paying their fair share in taxes.”
Finally, Sanders’ proposal would help borrowers who have relatively high levels of student debt, but don’t have the income or wealth to pay it off successfully, Heulsman said. That’s the case for some African-American borrowers and some borrowers who attended for-profit colleges.
Pamela Hunt, a single mother with $212,000 in student debt that she took on from attending a now defunct for-profit college spoke at the press event about how the debt — which she was misled into borrowing and from which she earned no benefit cost her — her home.
Still, a universal student-debt cancellation plan does raise questions about whether it’s a good use of resources to discharge debt of borrowers earning $250,000 or more, Huelsman said. “The people with incomes that would preclude them with receiving forgiveness under the Warren plan — there’s a genuine debate about how we should best move forward with those borrowers.”