Elizabeth Warren Lays Out Higher Education Vision: Students Must Have “Debt-Free Option“

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On Wednesday, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) gave an address at the Albert Shanker Institute dealing with how we guarantee a “debt-free option” for all students who seek to go to college – while at the same time reining in college costs and abusive for-profit college practices.

Warren explained that the two ideas are actually not in conflict:

It starts with courage – the courage of both Democrats and Republicans to admit how much is wrong and that the other side has a real point. We can do it if Republicans admit that we will never have affordable college without investing more resources in education, and if Democrats admit that we will never have affordable college without demanding real accountability in exchange for those investments.

In other words, Warren is saying that we have to spend the money necessary to allow every eligible student to go to college debt-free, but that we must also ensure that colleges which are getting the money are spending these funds responsibly. She slammed colleges that “have doubled down in a competition for students that involves fancy dorms, high-end student centers, climbing walls and lazy rivers – paying for those amenities with still higher tuition and student fees.”

Warren also took issue with the Department of Education for failing to punish Navient, a student loan servicer, for failing to cap interest rates on loans for military veterans, something they were required to do by law. “Instead of taking action against Navient, the Department of Education conducted its own investigation, and a year later announced, inexplicably, that Navient had not engaged in misconduct,” she said. She also invoked an analogy to the issue that has made her a progressive star: Wall Street. “In other words, in the view of senior officials at the Department of Education, Navient is simply too big to fail,” she concluded.

In tackling both the issue of freeing up more resources for students while reining in the abusive for-profit sector, Warren is facing off against powerful political interests. Recall that in 2012 the House of Representatives voted 303 to 114 to bar rules that would have limited government subsidies to abusive for-profit colleges – with 69 Democrats joining every Republican.

Her plan culminated in several action items, which include improving the Pell Grant program, expanding overall federal aid, making it easier to apply for education assistance, enforcing the actual rules that are on the books, and allowing students to refinance and discharge their loans in bankruptcy. Read Warren’s full remarks here.