Domestic Affairs

College-for-All: A Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the American Left

Elizabeth Warren, Massachusetts senator and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, unveiled a plan to eliminate student debt and make public colleges tuition-free this April. Similarly, Bernie Sanders, Vermont Senator and fellow Democratic candidate, recently released his own “College-for-All” plan, which proposes to eliminate all student debt and make public colleges and universities tuition-free. On face, these plans are one and the same. They both seek to hasten students’ return on their educational investment and democratize higher education. However, the policy whitepapers tell a different story.

The key difference between Sanders and Warren’s plans boils down to how each program addresses the question of distribution. Warren has taken the all-American route of means-testing, exercising her financial muscles to distribute student debt forgiveness and tuition waivers based on financial need. Her plan includes several financial instruments to determine asset worth and income levels to create a “sliding scale” of benefits that targets students who are most likely to default on their loans (turns out those are mostly kids who go to for-profit universities). This plan includes a means-tested program for cancelling $50,000 of debt for every student with a household income under $100,000, a sliding scale of cancellation for households above $100,000, and no cancellation for households above $250,000, along with a slew of other provisions to determine income and asset value for distribution purposes. The policy would be funded by an “Ultra-Millionaire Tax,” a wealth tax levied at entities with a net worth above $50 million.

On the other hand, Sanders’ plan applies universally — students from any financial background would benefit from erasing tuition costs and wholesale debt cancellation. There are no limits on household income and no financial instruments are required to allocate funding — the plan blanket bans tuition and caps interest rates regardless of who’s paying.

So who wins out? It’s a tough question, but I’d hedge my bets on Bernie. Here’s why.

There’s a procedural question that has to be answered before actually discussing the merits of each candidate’s policies — and that’s one about winning the Democratic primary. Before either candidate can introduce their bill to Congress, they’d have to win the Democratic nomination for the general election. So which plan wins out in that race? Most recent polling data puts Warren in second place at 21 percent (behind only Joe Biden), and Sanders in third at 11 percent. However, these polls do not consider the wave of popularity candidates get after unveiling a big new plan. After revealing her debt-cancellation plan in April, Warren kicked Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg out of the top 4 and shot her popularity from 6.1 percent to 9.3 percent in just a single week. In the same vein, Sanders revealed his debt-cancellation plan on May 24, which contributed (in part) to the wave of support which placed his Q3 fundraising haul at $25.3 million. Polls also expect that Sanders’ speeches at university campuses and his name-recognition among college-age voters will cause his uptick to exceed Warren’s jump in April.

Furthermore, Sanders’ broad geographical base favours an increase in popularity over time as political information spreads asymmetrically from urban to rural voters, many of whom struggle to obtain a college education.

Additionally, this analysis doesn’t discount Warren voters’ predictions that Sanders’ embrace of left-wing rhetoric could shore up popularity to the more moderate candidates. On the contrary, analysts saw an increase in second-choice polling for Sanders after an historic speech centered on “democratic socialism.” Moving further right, there is little variation in the type of blowback Sanders would get for proposing debt cancellation (the field is saturated with stale comparisons to Venezuela). And for the cherry on top, Warren’s campaign hasn’t responded to the Sanders campaign’s clear challenge for the hearts and minds of the American left, instead choosing to sign onto Pramila Jayapal’s Medicare-for-All Senate bill. This could paint Warren as having weak political hands and doesn’t distinguish her enough from the more renowned Sanders ticket. 

Moreover, universal programs such as Sanders’ tend to poll better in the aggregate when compared to means-tested ones. A matched-pairs test coupled with a meta-analysis comparing different health and social welfare programs showed a marked increase in popularity and rates of adoption of after means-testing was removed. Universal programs tend to include benefits for the middle class (as is the case with College-for-All) and are seen as more generous by individual voters. That raises taxpayer confidence — the index of voters who agree that the government is using its funds effectively — and ensures a funding base for the program into the future. This result is not replicated when surveying voters about means-tested programs such as TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) which polls at a paltry 40 percent, even among its Democratic base. On the other hand, programs such as Universal Basic Income (as a replacement for cash assistance) poll at almost 66 percent with the same base. Since much of the unpopularity behind means-testing is the result of the massive overhead required to determine eligibility and pay-outs, which are unfortunately necessary components of Warren’s plan, it’s easy to see why comparative polls favor the bolder Sanders’ bid.

There are other areas where Warren could potentially out-compete Sanders (and Biden) for the nomination — tax reform, military spending, and immigration are all areas where there are clear toss-ups between the progressives. But for Warren, higher-ed policy doesn’t seem to be that place.

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