Warren's plan would be both unfair and expensive

Among Democratic presidential candidates, student loan debt offers sweet opportunities to pander. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has the boldest plan, promising to help 95% of those with such obligations. Sen. Kamala Harris of California favors a "commitment to debt-free college." Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont says action is needed because "we don't punish people for the crime of getting a higher education."

Of course debt is not a crime, and the reason so many young people have borrowed to finance college is that they think a degree is more than worth it. For some students, that's a bad decision. But that's no reason to wipe out these debts for people who benefited from them and can well afford to repay them.

Today, 45 million Americans owe $1.5 trillion — more than double the total in 2009. The average monthly payment is around $400. For young people earning entry-level salaries, that's significant.

Warren's solution is to forgive as much as $50,000 owed by anyone in a household whose income is less than $100,000 a year. Those making more than that, up to $250,000, would get partial relief. She also wants to head off future student debt by making public colleges and universities tuition-free.

What's wrong with this approach? Plenty. By Warren's account, the loan forgiveness would cost $640 billion. But Urban Institute analysts Matthew M. Chingos and Kristin Blagg say the sum would be $955 billion. Neither figure includes the cost of eliminating tuition, which Warren figures will require $610 billion over a decade.

There is also the matter of fairness. A lot of people have sacrificed for years to pay back the money they borrowed — from their fellow citizens — for their education. They'd be justified in asking: If I had to pay it back, why don't others?

Most of the benefits of this huge expense would go to the least needy. On average, someone with a bachelor's degree will earn $1 million more than someone with only a high school diploma. Someone with a professional degree can expect to earn $2.3 million more than someone who only finished high school.

Brookings Institution economist Adam Looney estimates that under Warren's program, "the bottom 20% of borrowers by income get only 4% of the savings. Borrowers with advanced degrees represent 27% of borrowers but would claim 37% of the annual benefits."

Free tuition would have similarly skewed effects. The biggest benefit would go to families that can easily afford to pay the full sticker price of public universities.

Warren's plan would cost more than advertised, and it would shower federal largesse on millions of Americans who don't need it. You don't need a college education to understand why that's a bad idea.