Elizabeth Warren: I could go to college on a waitress’ salary. Americans can’t do that anymore

Editor’s note: Elizabeth Warren is one of 10 presidential candidates taking part in a Democratic debate Tuesday, July 30, at 8 p.m. ET, on CNN. Ten others will debate on Wednesday evening. She is a US senator from Massachusetts. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own; view more opinion at CNN.

When I was 12, my daddy had a heart attack, and we thought he was going to die. He wasn’t able to work for a long time. We lost our family station wagon and were an inch away from losing our home.

One day I walked into my parents’ bedroom and there on the bed was the dress — the one that only comes out for weddings, funerals and graduations. My mom was still in her slip as she paced around the room and repeatedly said, “We will not lose this house.” She was 50 and had never worked outside the home. But she dried her tears, pulled on that dress, stepped into her high heels and walked to the Sears, where she got a minimum-wage job answering phones. That job saved our family.

I grew up in Oklahoma with three older brothers who all went off and joined the military. Growing up, I knew I wanted to be a public school teacher. But for that you needed a college degree — and to get a college degree you needed money my family didn’t have. Still, I figured it out. I got a scholarship and headed off to George Washington University.

Like a lot of Americans, my story isn’t exactly a straight line. I dropped out of college at 19 after the first boy I ever loved asked me to marry him, and I got a job answering phones. Even though I thought my dream of teaching was over, I had a good job and a good life.

Then, I heard about the University of Houston. It was a public four-year college just 40 minutes away and tuition was just $50 a semester — something I could afford on a part-time waitressing salary. I got my degree and went on to become a teacher for students with speech and learning disabilities. I got to live my dream.

My daddy ended up as a janitor, but I got to become a teacher, a law school professor, a United States senator and now a candidate for president because higher education opened a million doors for me. But the chances I got don’t exist anymore.

States have cut investments per-student at community colleges and public four-year colleges — and as a result, the schools have raised tuition and fees to make up the gap. The federal government has pushed families that can’t afford to pay the sky-high costs of higher education toward taking out loans.

We’re facing a student loan debt crisis today that’s holding back a whole generation. It’s an anchor on our economy, reducing home ownership rates and leading to fewer people starting businesses. This crisis is also forcing students to drop out of school before getting their degrees. We have to address this crisis head-on, and I have a plan for that.

My plan will cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt for 95% of the people who carry it. At the same time, it will increase wealth for black and Latinx families and reduce both the black-white and Latinx-white wealth gaps. It’ll be a huge middle-class stimulus that will boost our economy.

My plan also includes making technical, two-year and four-year public college free because higher education shouldn’t just be a privilege for the wealthy. As part of my commitment to address inequities in higher education, I will also invest a minimum of $50 billion into a fund for both Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority Serving Institutions. Another $100 billion investment over the next 10 years will go to Pell Grants so students can graduate debt-free.

The entire cost of my plan for broad debt cancellation and universal free college is covered by my Ultra-Millionaire Tax — a small 2% tax on every dollar of net worth above $50 million, affecting just the 75,000 wealthiest families in America.

The time for half-measures is over. We can make big structural change and create new opportunities for all Americans.

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