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Democrats Offer Different Free College Plans


Democratic presidential candidates have had pretty much one big policy fight that has defined the 2020 campaign so far, and that's been over "Medicare for All." But now there is a big split over plans to offer free public college. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are pretty much on the same page.


BERNIE SANDERS: We should be thinking about making public colleges and universities tuition free.


ELIZABETH WARREN: We can make tuition-free public technical school, two-year college and four-year college for every kid in America.


WARREN: Anybody who wants it.

GREENE: But now with a new ad, Pete Buttigieg is highlighting a big difference.


PETE BUTTIGIEG: I believe we should move to make college affordable for everybody. There are some voices saying, well, that doesn't count unless you go even further, unless it's free even for the kids of millionaires. But I only want to make promises that we can keep.

GREENE: Let's talk all this through with NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben, who's been covering this issue and others on the presidential campaign trail. She's in Boston this morning. Hi, Danielle.


GREENE: OK. So the idea of a dispute between more progressive and more moderate candidates in the Democratic field, that's not new. But this ad from Buttigieg is really igniting an argument here among Democrats. I mean, just give us the basics.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. So here's what Buttigieg is proposing. He's proposing free public college but for families earning up to a certain level, $100,000. And then he would provide some assistance to kids or students from families that earn up to $150,000 beyond that. So he also supports expanding Pell Grants to help people pay for additional expenses beyond tuition. And he would boost some current programs like income-based repayment to help students deal with debt. Now, his argument, as we heard in that ad, is that this would help people only who need it the most but still will be a bold change. And so he's really taken aim there, as you heard, at plans from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders that are more sweeping.

GREENE: I mean, there's the different messaging and arguments, and then there's actually the policy details. I mean, how different is what Buttigieg is proposing compared to what we hear from Warren and Sanders?

KURTZLEBEN: All right. So to quickly lay out what Warren and Sanders are proposing, their plans, to be clear, are not identical to each other but are broadly similar. They're centered around free public college available to everyone. They also would have more Pell Grants to help with college-related expenses as well. And they would each cancel massive amounts of student debt. Sanders says he would cancel all student debt. Warren would cancel up to $50,000 for everyone with household income under $100,000 and taper it off from there. But, yeah, it's important to note that there are some similarities here. In practical terms, Buttigieg's plan would benefit the overwhelming majority of students. Sanders and Warren - and this is the free college stuff - would benefit all students. So there are some big similarities in the free college parts of these plans.

GREENE: But then Buttigieg says his plan is still going to make college affordable for everybody. How fair is that argument from him?

KURTZLEBEN: Now, listen, one of the things that people have taken issue with here is what he says there about this benefiting the children of millionaires and billionaires. It's really important to dissect that. For one thing, as plenty of people have pointed out here, very-high-income people tend to send their kids to private schools, very elite private schools, expensive ones. So they wouldn't benefit from these plans. And aside from that, he has this cut off at $150,000. By definition, many of the people above that are not millionaires. So a lot of this is about what benefit should go to the upper-middle class. But the bottom line here is that the divide here, yes, there are some policy divides, but there is a big philosophical divide here. Many progressives are arguing that college, like K-12 education, should be what they call a public good, that it should be something that is universally available to everyone.

GREENE: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben on the presidential campaign trail talking about one of the many issues that's come up. Thanks so much, Danielle.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.