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Pete Buttigieg Unveils College Affordability Plan

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg announced a college and higher-education affordability plan on Monday that would make public college tuition-free for lower- and middle-income households while stopping short of more ambitious proposals backed by progressive rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination.

The heart of Buttigieg’s “American Opportunity Agenda” is the elimination of tuition at public colleges for all American households earning up to $100,000 a year, as well as those families who are already eligible for income-based Pell grants. 

In total, Buttigieg estimates that the plan would abolish tuition for 7 million Americans. An unspecified number of additional families with annual incomes up to $150,000 would receive expanded subsidies to pay for schooling.

What’s more, Buttigieg would inject $120 billion more funding into the federal Pell grant program, which would go toward funding the living expenses of college students eligible for free tuition.

“When you come from a family of educators like I do, you know the power of learning to open new horizons and opportunities,” writes Buttigieg, whose parents were both Notre Dame professors, by way of introducing his plan. “As our world and our economy change, access to ongoing higher education is also increasingly necessary to thrive. For too many Americans, however, that opportunity is out of reach.”

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg's college affordability plans is bigger than Joe Biden's, but more modest than Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren's. (Photo: CHRIS CARLSON/Getty Images)

Buttigieg’s plan would cost $600 billion over a 10-year period. His campaign provided a list of $5.9 trillion in revenue sources to fund his entire domestic agenda, including the college affordability plan. The “pay-fors” include reinstatement of the pre-Trump top corporate tax and personal income tax rates, enactment of a 0.1% financial transactions tax and closure of the carried interest loophole.

The plan simultaneously aims higher than former Vice President Joe Biden, who is proposing free community college education, and is more modest than comparable policies put forward by Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who would make public college tuition-free for all Americans, regardless of income. 

Buttigieg’s plan perhaps most resembles that of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election. Following a bruising primary contest with Sanders, who ran on tuition-free college, Clinton proposed gradually eliminating public college tuition for households with annual earnings of up to $125,000.

Unlike the presidential primary field’s two most progressive contenders, Buttigieg also declines to embrace the sweeping cancellation of existing student debt, though he would automatically enroll all struggling borrowers in income-based repayment plans. After 20 years of participation in an income-based repayment plan, a borrower’s loans would be cancelled. And Buttigieg plans to immediately cancel the debts incurred by students who attended “unaffordable” for-profit higher education programs.

In addition, the “American Opportunity Agenda” features a host of technocratic fixes and funding adjustments designed to increase the number of college graduates by 10 million over a decade by boosting college and trade school opportunities for non-affluent Americans and members of historically marginalized communities. He would make it easier for food-insecure college students to get access to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, expand child care subsidies for college students with children, set a $15 minimum wage for students working during their studies, and protect college athletes’ right to profit from the use of their images. He would also allot an additional $50 billion in Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other institutions serving minority communities.

Several recent polls show Buttigieg rising in Iowa, including a new Des Moines Register/CNN survey that shows him with a solid first-place standing. He has invested significant resources in the first-in-the-nation caucus state. 

However, the South Bend mayor, who would be both the first openly gay and the youngest-ever president if elected, continues to battle perceptions that he lacks the ability to break through among voters of color in general, and Black voters in particular. Three Black Democratic officials alleged on Friday that the Buttigieg campaign misleadingly implied that they endorsed his candidacy in campaign materials acknowledging their endorsement of his “Douglass Plan” to combat racial inequality.

Buttigieg is one of 10 Democrats to qualify for the fifth Democratic presidential debate, which is due to take place this Wednesday in Atlanta at 8 p.m. ET.

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