Elizabeth Warren Proposes $50 Billion in Aid to HBCUs, Student Debt Forgiveness in Radical Higher Ed Reform Package

Photo: Drew Angerer (Getty Images)

If there’s one thing Americans of all stripes seem to agree on, it’s that the education system is broken: school districts are increasingly segregated and disproportionately funded at the K-12 level, and the cost of college educations—touted as an essential step toward economic advancement—has become increasingly prohibitive.

Because of skyrocketing tuition costs, a student debt crisis has saddled millions of Americans, hitting black graduates the hardest. On Monday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced a sweeping package of proposals that would tackle higher ed’s biggest issues, including the woeful, historic underfunding of America’s historically black colleges and institutions. The package marks the most comprehensive and detailed education plan to date from the approximately fifty-eleven Democratic presidential hopefuls with whom Warren is competing.

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In a Medium post published Monday morning, Warren unveiled a comprehensive—and radical—education reform plan. As with other candidates vying for the Democratic presidential nomination, the Massachusetts senator put forth a plan for universal free public college. But the plan also includes a road map for cancelling student loan debt for the majority of Americans saddled with it. Notably, Warren also pays specific attention to historically black colleges and universities, calling for at least $50 billion in funding for HBCUs.

“For decades, Black Americans were kept out of higher education by virtue of overtly discriminatory policies,” Warren wrote. “Even as the civil rights movement rolled back racially discriminatory admissions policies, the stratification of our higher education system kept students of color concentrated in under-resourced institutions and left them vulnerable to predatory actors.”

As Warren writes, the measure not just helps redress historic underfunding for HBCU’s but—coupled with her debt forgiveness plan—could substantially increase wealth for Black and Latinx families, who are more likely to be targets of private, predatory lending when pursuing their degrees.

She proposes cancelling up to $50,000 in student debt for borrowers who make less than $100,000 a year. Graduates who bring in higher incomes would qualify for less debt forgiveness: for every $3 over the $100,000 threshold a person makes, they amount of debt they could be forgiven would go down $1.

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Here’s an example Warren gave:

So, for example, a person with a household income of $130,000 gets $40,000 in cancellation, while a person with household income of $160,000 gets $30,000 in cancellation.

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Anyone making more than $250,000 would not qualify for loan forgiveness, according to the plan. (And no, student loan forgiveness would not count as taxable income.)

According to Warren’s estimates, the proposal would completely wipe out student loan balances for 75 percent of Americans who are currently paying back that debt—a number that is disproportionately high for black graduates.

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The combination of increased funding for HBCU’s and student loan forgiveness could potentially be a game changer for many black households, which have been losing wealth in recent years in no small part due to the ballooning student debt crisis.

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In addition to this, Warren makes clear that $50 billion is the minimum for HBCU funding; according to her plan, the Secretary of Education would have the authority to put more dollars into the fund to ensure that spending per-student at HBCUs are comparable to neighboring colleges. Other minority-serving institutions, including Tribal Colleges and Hispanic-Serving schools, would also be eligible for this funding.

But Warren isn’t stopping there. Her education plan also calls for a ban on for-profit colleges receiving any federal money “so they can no longer use taxpayer dollars to enrich themselves while targeting lower-income students, service-members, and students of color.” In addition, the Warren proposal bans public colleges from considering citizenship status or criminal history when making admissions decisions.

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While the plan is undoubtedly the most detailed set forth by any presidential candidate thus far, there are obvious limitations. The plan calls for increased federal funding to help make all public two and four-year colleges tuition-free—but while this would certainly provide greater educational access to a greater number of students, The Atlantic points out it also does nothing to discourage higher ed institutions from increasing tuition. There’s also the matter of rallying support for the radical package of proposals in Congress—even if the Democrats win control of both chambers, it’s unclear whether and how they would push forward all of Warren’s plan.

Still, as Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers told The Atlantic’s Adam Harris, Warren’s proposals would be “as consequential as the GI Bill,” if enacted.

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About the author

Anne Branigin

Staff writer, The Root. Sometimes I blog slow, sometimes I blog quick. Do you have this in coconut?