Politics & Government

Cancel student debt, make public college free, Elizabeth Warren tells SC crowd

Eliminating student debt could be a life-changer for Don Polite.

A graduate student at the University of South Carolina, Polite took on $20,000 in loan debt as an undergrad and another $5,000 to finish his PhD. His wife, a librarian, has another $40,000 in student loans to pay off.

So he was interested in hearing U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren speak at Columbia’s Allen University on Tuesday, the day after announcing details of her plan to cancel millions of Americans’ student debt and eliminate tuition at public colleges and universities if she wins the presidency in 2020.

Warren has pledged to cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt held by 42 million Americans, as long as they have a post-graduation income of less than $100,000, she says. She estimates that move would eliminate all debt held by 75 percent of those with loan debt from their time on a college campus, at a one-time cost to the federal government of $640 billion.

Warren told students at the historically-black university that she was able to finish school as a young mother at the University of Houston in 1970 thanks in part to money she earned waiting tables part time. That’s not a realistic path to a future career anymore, she said.

“Mostly what the federal government has done is pump millions and billions in loan money, and create a generation crushed by student debt,” Warren told a crowd of 170 in Allen University’s Chappelle Hall.

Polite said knocking $50,000 off his family’s student loan debt would give a substantial economic boost to their economic prospects.

“We have a son who just turned 2,” Polite said. “We could buy our own home. We could buy a home in a good school district... I could have something tangible to hand over to my son.”

The senator from Massachusetts is proposing that every American be able to attend two- and four-year public colleges tuition-free. Instead, the cost of a college education would be covered by a 2% annual tax on households with $50 million or more in wealth.

That tax would target the wealthiest 75,000 families in the country, Warren said. The money would also pay for universal childcare and pre-K, including “professional salaries” for those who work in those fields, she said.

Gibbs Knotts, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, said the proposal could excite younger voters in next February’s Democratic primary.

“Public schools here are more on the expensive side, and that’s partly because of how they have not been funded by the state,” Knotts said, “so student debt in South Carolina is on the higher side.”

State funding has made up a lower proportion of public university funding for years, leading to steadily rising tuition at many institutions.

Polite said ending college tuition would help a lot of the students he worked with as a high school teacher before going back to school.

“They made their decision (where to go to college) based on ‘where can I get the least amount of debt,’ even if that might not be the best school for them,” he said.

But Warren’s plan also runs the risk of creating sticker shock for voters weary of too many big-spending items on a president’s agenda.

“As Warren continues to play it fast and loose with taxpayer dollars, South Carolina voters should be wary of her radical agenda that would cost jobs, hike taxes and destroy progress,” said Mandi Merritt, spokesperson for the Republican National Committee.

But Drew Kurlowski, a political scientist at Coastal Carolina University, said the proposal could receive popular support, depending on how it’s framed.

“Tennessee has free community college, and that’s very popular in an extremely red state,” Kurlowski said. “That was sold as a way to boost economic opportunity, and that’s compelling across the partisan divide.”

Warren also told the Allen crowd her Department of Education would set aside $50 billion to invest in historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs.

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Bristow Marchant is currently split between covering Richland County and the 2020 presidential race. He has more than 10 years’ experience covering South Carolina. He won the S.C. Press Association’s 2015 award for Best Series on a toxic Chester County landfill fire, and was part of The State’s award-winning 2016 election coverage.