Julián Castro is officially running for president in 2020, after previously serving as President Barack Obama’s Housing and Urban Development secretary.
Castro has a lot of progressive bona fides — he’s refusing all PAC money, comes from a family of immigrants, is fluent in Spanish, has an incredibly diverse campaign team, and supports the Green New Deal — but his response to the student debt crisis, which is arguably the biggest issue facing working-class Americans, is disappointing. And to make matters worse, he’s so proud of the lackluster policy that he featured it in a tweet from his official account the day he launched his campaign:
"We’ll work to make the first two years of college, a certification program or an apprenticeship accessible and affordable, so millions more people get the skills they need to get a good job without drowning in debt." #Julian2020
— Julián Castro (@JulianCastro) January 12, 2019
To break this down completely, Castro isn’t even promising anything but to “work” on a solution to the student debt crisis. And the solution he promises he’ll “work to make” happen is a paltry two years of college “accessible and affordable” — not even tuition-free, as Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) called for two years ago.
Calling for tuition-free public college isn’t all that radical of an idea. Most countries in the European Union already offer tuition-free college to their citizens. College in both Mexico and Brazil is virtually free, with students only asked to pay modest registration fees. In Denmark, students are actually paid a stipend for attending college, as an educated populace is seen as a valuable asset.
Sanders’ proposed tuition-free college policy would cover four-year tuition at all public colleges and universities in the United States, and would be funded by $47 billion in federal expenditures, with the remaining funding coming from states. Sanders would generate the money from taxing Wall Street speculative trading (on risky financial instruments like derivatives) if his plan became law.
According to Sanders’ calculations, tuition at all public universities amounts to roughly $75 billion/year. Considering that the federal government financed roughly $100 billion in student loans in 2017 alone according to the Congressional Budget Office, spending just $47 billion to make college tuition-free would actually be a money saver.
Proposing tuition-free public college isn’t even very politically risky, according to a Reuters poll from August. The poll asked a sample of Democrats and Republicans if they would support a plan to provide tuition-free public college, and found that 60 percent of respondents overall were in favor (79 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of Republicans). Only 28.7 percent of people Reuters surveyed were outright opposed to the idea.
Sadly, taking on student debt is usually the only way working-class Americans can obtain a college degree, which is widely seen as a must-have for most jobs that pay middle-class wages. A 2017 report from CNBC found that 70 percent of college graduates will leave college with at least some amount of debt. And the average student borrower owes more than $37,000 in debt by the time they get their degree.
The student debt crisis is currently affecting approximately 44 million Americans nationwide, with a combined $1.5 trillion in outstanding debt. This debt is preventing many Americans from becoming homeowners, having children, and even getting married. Julián Castro simply promising to “work” on making just the first two years of college “affordable and accessible” shows a profound lack of understanding on his part of the plight faced by tens of millions of Americans.
If Castro truly wants to stand out from the pack and win the support of working-class voters in his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, he’ll have to show a much more in-depth comprehension of the student debt crisis.