public college

South Bend, Indiana mayor (and upcoming 2020 candidate) Pete Buttigieg doesn’t think tuition-free public college is the answer to the college affordability crisis.

During a recent campaign event at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts — a private university not far from his alma mater, Harvard University — Buttigieg was asked about whether or not he supported implementing tuition-free public college, as his rival Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) does.

Mayor Buttigieg first outlined his proposal to expand Pell Grants, call on states to cover a higher percentage of public universities than students, and expand student loan forgiveness programs for public service professions and teaching. He then characterized the push for tuition-free public college as something that would amount to a subsidy from the majority of people who don’t attend college to the minority of people who do. (emphasis ours)

“Let me tell you why I’m stopping short of what I’m sure is probably the right answer, politically, in this room, which is to just say we can do away with those costs,” Buttigieg said. “At the end of the day, Americans who have a college degree earn more on average than Americans who don’t. And as a progressive, I have a hard time getting around the idea that a majority who earn less because they didn’t go to college, would subsidize a minority who earn more because they did all the way to a hundred percent.”

Buttigieg’s answer resulted in a lot of head-scratching on Twitter, with many pointing out that Buttigieg apparently seems unaware that under some free college proposals, like in the bill introduced in 2017 by Sens. Sanders and Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts), it wouldn’t be working-class Americans paying for it, but Wall Street speculators through a financial transaction tax.

“What if … the rich subsidized it,” tweeted journalist Ken Klippenstein.

“I too have never heard of progressive taxation,” tweeted economics student Eric Doser.

“Ummmm… does anyone want to let him know who would be paying that tax?” @quartknee103 tweeted.

College affordability is one of the biggest issues impacting millennials, with the total amount of student debt surging past $1.5 trillion in 2018, from just $600 billion a decade ago. Student debt is seen as one of the largest hurdles to traditional adult milestones like homeownership and having children. A lengthy BuzzFeed News report from February elaborated on how many student borrowers default on their loans due to how high monthly student loan payments are.

The free college movement often pairs its call for tuition-free public higher education to either a bailout of student debt (which the Levy Institute of Economics at Bard College estimates would generate $1 trillion in economic activity) or, at the very least, more easily allowing student debt to be abolished in bankruptcy.

However, student debt isn’t just an obstacle for young working-class Americans. As Grit Post reported last month, even 68 members of Congress — arguably the most powerful people in the country — still owe tens of thousands of dollars in student debt. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), for example, still has more than $200,000 in student debt from earning his law degree, even though he’s been earning the $174,000/year Congressional salary since 2007.


Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.

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