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Elizabeth Warren's College Plan Solves a Long-Running Progressive Dilemma

Progressives often debate whether universal or targeted policies are best suited to create a more equal society. Warren's college plan brilliantly combines them both.
Senator Elizabeth Warren addresses an organizing event at Manchester Community College in Manchester, New Hampshire, on January 12th, 2019.

Senator Elizabeth Warren addresses an organizing event at Manchester Community College in Manchester, New Hampshire, on January 12th, 2019.

Senator Elizabeth Warren's plan to forgive student debt is a serious proposal to fix America's broken system of higher education. That aspect of her vision has been well covered in the national press. What's been less discussed is that Warren's plan is also an innovative effort to fix America's broken approach to racial inequality.

For decades, policymakers have been torn between two approaches to anti-racist policy: targeted, and universal. Targeted programs attempt to redress racist inequalities directly, through programs like affirmative action. Universal programs attempt to reduce the harms of racism by improving the welfare of everyone, via instruments like Social Security or Medicare for All.

Targeted anti-racist programs have a record of considerable success in the United States. The Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, was a targeted policy. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 was another. It required states with a history of discrimination against black voters to get federal permission to change their voting laws. The act enfranchised huge numbers of people; in Mississippi alone, black voting registration rates jumped from 6.7 percent in 1965 to 59.8 percent in 1967. The importance of these provisions protecting black voting rights was further illustrated in the months after the Supreme Court struck them down in 2013: States and localities that had formerly been prevented from pushing through inequitable measures now rushed to pass laws restricting the vote. Jacksonville, Florida, for example, moved a voting location in a black community away from public transportation, making it harder for residents to cast ballots.

The VRA was a success. But the way that it was gutted illustrates the limits to targeted anti-racist policy: Measures designed specifically to protect black people don't attract support from the white majority, and may provoke backlash. They can alienate voters who aren't black, and therefore may be easy to repeal or erode.

Harvard University sociologist William Julius Wilson worried in 1991 that "Many white Americans have turned, not against blacks, but against a strategy that emphasizes programs perceived to benefit only racial minorities"—programs such as affirmative action, busing, and anti-discrimination lawsuits. Senator Bernie Sanders was expressing the same concern when he said as a presidential candidate in 2016 that a policy of reparations, in which the U.S. paid compensation to descendants of enslaved people, would be too "divisive." Like Wilson, Sanders feared that targeted policies instituted by Democrats would anger white voters, and hand elections to Republicans. Those Republican officeholders would then pass even more racist measures. (Sanders has been more open to reparations in his 2020 campaign.)

Wilson argued that the Democrats should embrace "Full employment policies, job skills training, comprehensive health-care legislation, educational reforms in the public schools, child-care legislation, and crime and drug abuse prevention programs." Wilson saw all of these as "race-neutral" programs that would benefit black people as well as white.

Universal programs certainly have a history of benefiting black Americans. African-American and Latinx people have lower rates of insurance coverage than whites, so expanding health-care coverage can benefit them especially, even when such programs are universal rather than targeted. Under Obamacare, uninsured rates among African Americans dropped by more than a third. Sanders' Medicare for All plan would do even more.

The problem is that, while universal policies can help ameliorate some problems, they can't always address specific challenges facing black people. For instance, as of 2016, the typical white family had an average net worth of $171,000, while the average black family had an average worth of $17,100. That's a massive advantage for white people, and the result of hundreds of years of discriminatory policies, from slavery to redlining, as Ta-Nehisi Coates explains in his famous "Case for Reparations." Better health care for all, or more educational opportunities for all, won't redress that imbalance.

Moreover, racism can undermine support for universal programs as well as for targeted ones. Food-stamp recipients are mostly white, but the myth of the black "welfare queen" who refuses to work and lazily collects federal assistance is still being used as an argument for getting rid of nutrition-assistance programs.

Targeted programs can cause backlash. But universal programs don't always erase inequities. And as long as those inequities persist, they can be leveraged to undermine universal programs too.

Is it best, then, to pursue universal policies or targeted policies? Warren's educational plan has a brilliantly obvious answer: We should do both.

Warren's program has both universal and targeted elements. The universal aspects have been most thoroughly reported: Warren wants to make college tuition and fees free at state institutions. She also intends to use a tax on ultra-millionaires to fund up to $50,000 in debt forgiveness for every holder of a student loan. Warren says the plan will "wipe out student loan debt entirely for more than 75 percent of the Americans with that debt."

Warren's proposal is an excellent example of a universal program that will help ameliorate racist disparities. The student loan crisis affects a broad range of students. But it's worst for black students, who have little family wealth to rely on; 77.7 percent of black students take out federal loans for college, as opposed to the national average of 60 percent. So a student-debt jubilee will, by its nature, help black students disproportionately.

To ensure that this debt relief is targeted for those who need it most, Warren has also proposed structuring the aid in a progressive way. Students with household incomes under $100,000 receive the full $50,000 of debt relief. For every $3 of income over $100,000, students get one dollar less of debt forgiveness. Families with $250,000 or more of household income would get no relief. Since the average black household income is half that of the average white household income, targeting relief toward poorer families would again help reduce racist inequality (as well as income inequality).

Warren's program is not limited to universal measures, though; it also has targeted anti-racist provisions. Specifically, Warren's plan calls for an initial $50 billion in aid to Historically Black Colleges and Universities.

Research by scholars like Krystal L. Williams and BreAnna L. Davis has documented the struggles of HBCUs. State-funded HBCUs have been chronically underfunded by legislators in comparison to historically white institutions. Private HBCUs are also more tuition-dependent and have lower endowments than their historically white rivals. Black educational institutions suffer from direct discrimination, as they receive less funding from the government, and from indirect discrimination, because the communities they serve tend to have less wealth. Warren's plan provides what are, in effect, quiet, targeted reparations, providing payments to black institutions and black people in order to offset a legacy of discriminatory policies.

"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," Warren writes in a Medium post outlining her college plan. Her program proposes to eliminate that vulnerability by making a college education more affordable for everyone—and by specifically strengthening institutions that have served black people.

Warren is, of course, not the first person to suggest combining universal and targeted approaches to racism. But in practice, policymakers have tended to prioritize one over the other. Warren's proposal is impressive in the way that it backs a universal program that will have distinct anti-racist effects, while simultaneously including provisions designed to target racism directly. She acknowledges that a broad range of people in the U.S. need help, even as she rejects the idea that universal programs will inevitably erase inequality.

Warren's proposal presents anti-racism as an integral part of a better, freer, and more equal America. Whether or not she gets the nomination, that's a policy blueprint worth adopting.


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