by Michael Dannenberg

Below is our 30,000 feet high view of the main difference between Senator Sanders and Vice President Biden’s 2020 Presidential campaign higher education plans.

— Editor’s Note: Late breaking **UPDATE** at the conclusion of this piece. —

The trade publication Inside Higher Ed already has done fine job summarizing the details of the Sanders and Biden plans. You can look there to begin drilling down.

The big picture main difference between the two plans is size and cost. Sanders’ higher ed plan is approximately three times as large as Biden’s and carries a $2.2 trillion price tag over 10 years. But philosophically the choice is more nuanced.

Biden’s $750 billion proposal is still extraordinarily large. For perspective, $750 billion over 10 years basically doubles the entire U.S. Department of Education budget over the same period of time. And that’s to say nothing of either Biden or Sanders’ K-12 plans that also carry very big price tags.

We submit with respect to their education platforms, philosophically the Sanders-Biden choice is “liberal versus progressive” as opposed to “socialist versus moderate.” Sanders doesn’t ban private colleges out of existence, for example. And Biden’s higher ed plan is extraordinarily robust compared to that embraced by any prior Democratic President or current member of the House and Senate Democratic leadership.

That said, Sanders’ and Biden’s college affordability plans have some notable other big picture political and technical differences.

Sanders offers a clear, compelling for many, higher ed message of free college and student loan debt cancelation for all. The strength of Sanders’ message and promise to cover two and four year public colleges are among the best parts of his plan. College is definitely too expensive, period full stop. It’s also true though that too many families overestimate the cost of college and underestimate the amount of financial aid for which they’re eligible. A college for everyone message is inspiring and counters that misimpression.

But when you peel away the surface, in addition to the big expense (including for those who don’t need the help), opportunity cost, and hazard of encouraging reckless future student loan lending and borrowing, there are very reasonable concerns with Sanders’ plan.

He still effectively requires working class families to take on student loan debt for non-tuition and fee full-time college attendance costs (e.g. housing, food, books, transportation). Most borrowers who default do so with relatively small amounts of student loans owed. So even a small amount of student debt is dangerous for many. He doesn’t deal with the Affordable Care Act problem of families who live in states that choose not to participate in his plan. There’s no college accountability for results.

Biden’s plan is good in that in general it’s targeted on the neediest families, but it’s suboptimal in being limited to tuition and fees at only community colleges. Doing so furthers the danger of “under matching.” All things being equal, a student eligible to attend a four-year college that chooses to attend a two-year community college instead is 30 percentage points less likely to complete than if they had initially enrolled in a four-year college for which they were eligible. Peers, institution resources, and difficulty in transferring credit all significantly affect the likelihood of degree attainment.

Biden would double the maximum Pell Grant, which in contrast to Sanders’ plan would reduce student loan debt to zero for most working-class and low-income community college students and insulate against some of the Affordable Care Act non-state participation danger.

Notably, Sanders does not propose an increase in Pell Grant funding. Biden would not only do so but would also make Pell Grant aid available to dual enrollment high school students, which should be an equity imperative especially for the sizable number of students from low-income families who are college ready before 12th grade begins.

Best would be a plan that provides a robust, progressive package of college affordability and completion support to needy families rather than a partial, regressive package to all families. A robust, progressive free college or debt-free college package that in effect pulls the best parts from both the Sanders and Biden plans and leverages change in K-12 college preparation (as well as includes some higher education accountability) is more likely to result in degree completion and economic mobility, whereas a partial and regressive package could end up harming a number of students, as well as taxpayers, in the form of heightened dropout levels and worsening inequality.

Fortunately, policymaking is an iterative process. There is plenty of time for the Democratic Party’s 2020 standard bearer, if not the next President for that matter, to improve their higher education agenda or for state leaders to pick up wherever the next President falls short.

We shouldn’t be wasteful, but we also shouldn’t do free college on the cheap.

***UPDATE*** Vice President Biden has expanded his plan, expressly fusing in a key Sanders’ element — extension of his zero tuition and fee promise to two- and four-year public colleges. And like former candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren’s plan, Biden has expanded his plan to extend that tuition and fee free promise to families earning up to $125,000 a year in income, which is essentially the bottom 80% of all families.

Good for Biden in countering the under matching phenomenon. And when coupled with his proposal to double Pell, good for Biden in essentially promising a ‘”debt-free” education to working class and low-income families. (Disclosure: The “Debt-Free” college idea originated with our staff’s work dating back well before Secretary Clinton proposed the same, so we’re partial.) 

Next step, Mr. Vice President, expand your higher ed plan to leverage change in high school preparation for college, college selection, and college accountability as well. As the Institute for Higher Education Policy’s Konrad Mugglestone and I pointed out some time ago, Making Promises Worth Keeping demands more.

Detailed recommendations for Massachusetts can be found here (pp.17-23).

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