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Democratic presidential candidate former New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg delivers remarks during a campaign rally on February 12, 2020, in Nashville, Tennessee. Bloomberg is echoing other Democratic contenders in his new higher education plan, which calls for making two-year public college tuition-free for all and debt-free for the lowest-income students. Credit: Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

NEW YORK – As a Republican mayor of New York City, Michael R. Bloomberg championed an education agenda that President Donald J. Trump could agree with: Letting charter schools proliferate, giving parents choice and running education more like a business.

Yet as a Democratic presidential hopeful, Bloomberg now has a plan for the future of higher education that both echoes and expands upon policies his fellow Democratic candidates have already called for: Free community college, greater investment in Pell grants and automatic income-based repayment plans for student loans.

In fact, he no longer sounds like Trump at all, at least when it comes to talking about higher education; he has yet to make his K-12 plan available.

In a phone call with journalists Monday, Bloomberg’s advisors touted his ambitious and expensive proposals (an investment of $700 billion over 10 years) to make college fairer and more affordable, including boosting states’ investment in higher education, simplifying financial aid forms and eliminating legacy admissions. They said he’d pay for his ideas by, among other things, raising for corporate taxes.

And overall, Bloomberg’s plans represent a clear departure from Trump’s education agenda, especially the president’s recent proposed education budget for fiscal year 2021.  Trump’s plan would reduce the federal role in education, eliminate public service loans and tighten spending on financial aid programs.

“He is trying to say, ‘I’m planting my flag on bold and progressive plans, but I’m a technocrat with smart people.’ This is what happens if you get a lot of smart progressive experts together and have them dream up something that sounds progressive.” 

Higher education experts have said Trump’s plan could push college out of reach for low-income students. Bloomberg’s plan calls for helping such students instead, by directly investing in private colleges and universities with large populations of low-income students. Boosting Pell grants would cover their books, meals, transportation and child care – all frequent obstacles to college completion.

Julie Peller, executive director of the bipartisan, nonprofit advocacy group known as Higher Learning Advocates, praised Bloomberg’s plan for recognizing “that the demographics and needs of learners today have changed,” and for including a focus on completion and earning outcomes for low-income students.

But Peller was among those who worry how he’d pay for it. “What tradeoffs can we expect with an ambitious plan like this?” she wondered.

Related: Trump’s budget would slash support for low-income students

And skepticism emerged, some of it because of Bloomberg’s self-paying, late entry into the race, along with his K-12 track record demanding “data-driven results,” based on student test scores and favoring competition to public education.

“Coming into the race late and with his own finances has given him the advantage of studying other candidate positions, to crib and place himself where he likes among their prior pronouncements,” noted David Bloomfield, a professor of education law at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center. “He’s photo-shopping his higher-ed plan into a developed picture where it will do him the most good.”

Bloomfield was a frequent critic of the ex-mayor’s K-12 agenda, but gives him props for “a thorough, progressive plan touching all bases – more Bernie [Sanders] than [Pete] Buttigieg, borrowing from [Elizabeth] Warren’s plan – full playbook, even though it comes from arguably the most conservative leading candidate in the race for the Democratic nomination.”

“Coming into the race late and with his own finances has given him the advantage of studying other candidate positions, to crib and place himself where he likes among their prior pronouncements.”

As is typical of Bloomberg, his plan also calls for a fair number of accountability measures. Two-year colleges would have to invest in “evidence-based strategies to increase completion rates,” and eligibility would hinge on students transferring to schools or programs with four-year courses of study or that lead directly to degrees. Davis Jenkins, a senior research scholar at the Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University, likes the focus on more effective outcomes. And Michael Horn, the author of Choosing College: How to Make Better Learning Decisions Throughout Your Life,” likes the focus on students.*

“Mayor Bloomberg is introducing a plan that appears more progressive than many of the candidates in the race, by focusing on the neediest students and families and including private schools, not just public colleges,” Horn said. “It further shows his stripes by not just allowing students to afford pricey tuition at college, but also focusing on students’ other needs like food and transportation, which are significant barriers for low-income students completing college.”

Gail Mellow, the former president of LaGuardia Community College in Queens, N.Y., said she liked the plan as well, particularly his focus “on finding ways to incentivize elite colleges to accept low-income students, while at the same time increasing support of community colleges and HBCUs.”

The former mayor himself wasn’t on the call Monday outlining his priorities to the media or answering questions; instead he had his advisors and Gina Raimondo, Rhode Island’s Democratic governor, tout them.

“I think it is fantastic,” Raimondo said of Bloomberg’s agenda, although she spent much of her time on the call pushing the success and growth of her own signature plan, which gives students the option of either two years of free community college or a scholarship covering their third and fourth years at a state university.

It is less clear how Bloomberg’s call for ending legacy admissions at colleges that give preference to alumni will go over. His own alma mater John Hopkins recently did so, although it may have helped that Bloomberg gave Hopkins higher-ed’s biggest-ever gift ($1.8 billion), devoted exclusively to financial aid.

Bloomberg’s advisors also did not specify how a tax on the wealthy would work, or explain many of the other particulars, but Rick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, said he thought that was less important at the moment.

“These [ideas] are more about markers and signals,” Hess said. “He wants to be big and expansive and generous. It’s more of a vision document than one in which details matter.

He is trying to say, ‘I’m planting my flag on bold and progressive plans, but I’m a technocrat with smart people.’ This is what happens if you get a lot of smart progressive experts together and have them dream up something that sounds progressive.”

* Clarification: This sentence has been updated to reflect that Michael Horn was responsible for the comments about Bloomberg’s focus on students.

This story on Michael Bloomberg on education was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Liz Willen, a longtime education reporter, has been proud to lead an award-winning staff of The Hechinger Report since 2011. She was recently honored for commentary writing by the New York Press Club....

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