Pete Buttigieg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got into a nasty fight over free public college. It's part of a larger battle between progressive and centrist Democrats.

Pete Buttigieg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got into a nasty fight over free public college. It\
Pete Buttigieg and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez got into a nasty fight over free public college. It\'s part of a larger battle between progressive and centrist Democrats.  


  • Mayor Pete Buttigieg recently introduced his plan to make college more affordable and took a swipe at his 2020 competitors who want public college to be tuition-free for all.

  • The South Bend mayor thinks that tuition-free public college would wastefully and unfairly subsidize education for the rich.

  • While more moderate Democrats argue universal tuition-free public college would be regressive, many on the left say it's the most progressive option if funded by a big tax hike on the rich.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg is increasingly on the offensive.

In a recent campaign ad introducing his plan to make college more affordable, Buttigieg took a swipe at his 2020 competitors who want public college to be tuition-free for all. He claimed that those proposals would wastefully subsidize education for the children of millionaires and billionaires.

"I believe we should move to make college affordable for everybody. There are some voices saying, 'Well that doesn't count unless you go even further, unless it's free even for the kids of millionaires,'" Buttigieg says in the ad, clearly referring to his 2020 competitors Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders without naming them.

The South Bend mayor argued that his proposal, which would invest in Pell Grants and Historically Black Colleges and Universities and make public college free for kids whose families make up to $100,000, goes far enough.

"Look, what I'm proposing is plenty bold," he says. "I mean, these are big ideas."

Other moderate 2020 Democrats, including former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, have similarly stopped short of endorsing free public college.

But the policy rollout went viral when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an outspoken progressive who's endorsed Sanders' 2020 bid, slammed Buttigieg's argument in a series of tweets last Thursday.

"This is a GOP talking point used to dismantle public systems, & it's sad to see a Dem candidate adopt it," the congresswoman wrote of the mayor's claim that free college would unfairly subsidize millionaires.

Buttigieg's campaign pushed back on Ocasio-Cortez.

"Pete's position is the same position that was advanced by the 2016 Democratic Party nominee so it's quite a stretch to call it Republican talking points," a spokesperson for the campaign told Insider.

Associated Press/Charlie Niebergall

Regressive or progressive?

Buttigieg and other more moderate Democrats argue that free public college is a giveaway to the rich. And they say Buttigieg's targeted plan is more progressive than universal plans because it targets benefits to those who need them most.

"It is more progressive to target aid to those who require it, conserving federal resources to do the maximum good," the Washington Post editorial board wrote in a Friday piece defending Buttigieg's plan as "both more affordable and more progressive than the other, more expensive ones."

Buttigieg's campaign has doubled down on his position and a top campaign adviser, Lis Smith, further argued that free public college would force non-college educated Americans to subsidize education that will make richer Americans even richer.

"If you think that a worker who didn't go to college should pay for college for a CEO's kid, then @PeteButtigieg isn't your candidate," Smith tweeted Friday.

Conservatives make the same argument.

"[There's] the potential for lower-income Americans, maybe it's waitresses and truck drivers or electricians, who have chosen or just did not go to college, having to foot the bill for their college-going counterparts who will presumably make more than them long-term," Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy at the conservative Heritage Foundation, told Insider.

Many progressives, including some who support Buttigieg's policy, took issue with that argument. They say it's unfair to claim that a proposal paid for by tax increases on the wealthy is a burden on the working class.

Wesley Whistle, an education policy adviser at the left-leaning think tank New America, called Buttigieg's position "wrong" and "very divisive rhetoric" that plays into what he believes are President Donald Trump's efforts to divide college-educated and non-college-educated voters.

"Of course people who don't go to college shouldn't be paying for it, but that's just not how it works," Whistle said.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

To counteract the regressive potential of universal policies, progressives like Warren and Sanders argue the tax code should do most of the work to redistribute Americans' wealth and income. They plan to pay for free college with their wealth taxes.

Robert Hockett, a Cornell Law School professor who advises both Warren and Sanders on policy, argues it's more efficient to avoid means-testing a program like public college and instead "put all of your progressivity into the income tax or into a wealth tax."

Hockett, in an interview with Insider, called Buttigieg's argument "disturbing" and "opportunistic." Hockett said the mayor's claim about the regressive potential of free public college is a disingenuous political ploy.

Universal versus targeted programs

The free college debate has sparked a more philosophical discussion on the left about whether new public programs should be open to all or targeted towards those who need them most.

Those in favor of a universal approach argue that public college should be treated like public parks, K-12 schools, and social security - namely, every citizen should have equal access to the benefits. Progressives are also making the universalist case for healthcare in the form of Medicare for all.

Ocasio-Cortez used Buttigieg's proposal as an opportunity to lay out her case for "universal public systems." She argued the rich should have equal access to public goods in part because public systems are stronger when "everyone's invested" and because socio-economic diversity in the classroom is important.

She added that wealthy students will continue to go to private colleges in disproportionate numbers and likely won't rely too much on public colleges and taxpayer dollars.

Mike Blake/Reuters

"Universal public systems are designed to benefit EVERYBODY! Everyone contributes & everyone enjoys," Ocasio-Cortez tweeted. "We don't ban the rich from public schools, firefighters, or libraries [because] they are public goods."

Proponents of universalism argue that providing a benefit to everyone immunizes it from attacks and stigmatization - at least to some extent.

"When you start carving people out & adding asterisks to who can benefit from goods that should be available to all, cracks in the system develop," Ocasio-Cortez said.

But many others on the progressive left think there's a limit to how much the federal government should subsidize education for the rich.

When Warren came out with her plan last April to cancel student loan debt for over 75% of borrowers, she was widely praised by progressives for proposing the most generous policy of its kind. But Sanders pushed the envelope further in June by rolling out a plan to forgive all student debt.

Even some high-profile Sanders supporters think his debt forgiveness plan goes too far. They point out that the wealthiest debt-holders would stand to gain the most from the plan.

"It does strike me as a little odd to say that people who are millionaires or better should have their debt simply stricken or paid by the federal government," Hockett said.

Hockett added that he considers Sanders the "gold standard" in the 2020 field, but thinks Warren's student-debt plan is superior.

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