Raised in a working class family in Norman, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma City, Elizabeth Warren (née Herring) had dreams of being a teacher from a young age. Her family couldn’t afford college tuition, but the bright young Warren, an outstanding member of her high school debate team, was able to land a debate scholarship to George Washington University (GW), which had an elite, championship-level debate team.
The university offered Warren a full scholarship, and she would be able to pay the rest of her expenses with the help of federal student loans. Warren’s parents, who were hesitant at first about her going to college, allowed her to go to Washington D.C. to pursue her education.
As it is for many young adults, college was a time of growth, transformation and new experiences for Warren. At GW, Warren was exposed to a world she had never known.
“I had never been north or east of Pryor, Oklahoma,” she said in her autobiography “A Fighting Chance.” “I had never seen a ballet, never been to a museum, and never ridden in a taxi. I’d never had a debate partner who was black, never known anyone from Asia, and never had a roommate of any kind.”
Attending college in the nation’s capital and one of its largest cities changed much of this quickly. Warren later recounted that it was at GW’s Lisner Auditorium where she experienced a spate of firsts: her first ballet, her first modern dance, her first string quartet, her first symphony orchestra, her first Shakespeare play. A mere 15-minute drive from campus was the National Gallery of Art, where she walked through an art museum for the first time.
“It was being here in GW that doors opened for me in incredible ways. They changed my life, they changed who I am and what I do, and made me forever after a strong supporter of the humanities,” she told a crowd at the 2013 National Humanities Alliance Meeting on GW’s campus.
She also experienced her first taste of financial security. Warren’s family had struggled financially for much of her youth. At one point, when Warren was 12 years old, her family almost lost their home after her father suffered a heart attack, rendering him unable to work for months. Her mother, who was 50 years old and had never worked outside the home, got a minimum-wage job answering phones in the catalogue order department of the Sears nearby. The job was unglamorous, and by Warren’s account, her mother wasn’t happy to go to work, but it staved off a bout with poverty.
Now, Warren was out of the house and on her own. With her scholarships covering tuition, federal loans helping assist her costs of living and some extra income from a part-time job, Warren had a sense of financial freedom for the first time in her life. “The most remarkable part was that in college I wasn’t poor … I still kept cash in a white sock tucked in the back of a drawer, but now I knew I had enough to get me through each term. I had a taste of security, and it felt like heaven.”
Warren’s time at GW may have been impactful, but it was also short-lived. After just two years, she dropped out to get married to her high school boyfriend, Jim Warren, who had just been offered a job at IBM in Houston.
Now living a decidedly more domestic life in Houston, she worked a temp job answering phones but was eager to finish her studies and pursue her dream of being a teacher.
So, she enrolled in the University of Houston (UH), a four-year public commuter college 40 minutes from where she lived. Her tuition: $50 per semester.
Warren has written about how the low cost of college during her youth enabled her to pursue an education and ultimately achieve her career ambitions.
“This was a quality, public education — and I could afford it on a part-time waitressing salary,” she said in a post on Medium. “Higher education opened a million doors for me. It’s how the daughter of a janitor in a small town in Oklahoma got to become a teacher, a law school professor, a U.S. Senator, and eventually, a candidate for president of the United States …
“Today it’s virtually impossible for a young person to find that kind of opportunity.”
With inflation, Warren’s $50 tuition in 1970, the year she graduated from UH, would be the equivalent of approximately $334 in 2020. For the 2020-21 academic year, tuition at UH costs $5,136.90 per semester for in-state students and $12,966.90 for out-of-state students.
Warren’s experience with affordable education has shaped her policy positions today. As a 2020 presidential candidate, Warren is pitching a $1.25 trillion education plan that would address the high costs of college by eliminating tuition and fees at all two- and four-year public universities and canceling up to $50,000 in student loan debt for 42 million Americans.
Warren’s undergraduate education came to an end at UH when she graduated in 1970 with a Bachelor’s degree in speech pathology and audiology. The Warrens moved to New Jersey after Jim Warren received a job transfer, and she became pregnant with her first child, Amelia, shortly after. For a short while, she was a homemaker, raising her newborn daughter, cooking, and cleaning her home in suburban New Jersey. But she yearned for something more. Though she didn’t know exactly what that something was, Warren was encouraged that she could be doing more with her life by a growing women’s movement.
When Amelia turned two, Warren decided it was time to continue her education. Her husband Jim initially protested and her parents thought she was crazy, but she persisted. The opportunity to pursue higher education created countless new possibilities for Warren, who then was confronted with the decision of what to study.
“Suddenly the world opened up. It was kid-in-the-candy-store time. At first I thought about graduate school in speech pathology. I also got the applications for engineering school,” she recounted in “A Fighting Chance.”
Ultimately, she settled on law school, even though she had no background in law.
“I knew next to nothing about being a lawyer, but on television lawyers were always fighting to defend good people who needed help,” she recalled. “Besides, there was just a little wonderment in the notion that I could actually earn a law degree. I loved the thought that someday Amelia would be able to say that her mommy was a lawyer.”
Fueled by those dreams, Warren enrolled in Rutgers Law School at Rutgers University–Newark and never looked back. She graduated with a Juris Doctor degree and passed the bar examination in 1976, while she was eight months pregnant with her second child, her son Alex.
Though Warren’s education was over, her academic career was not. Warren spent the majority of her adult life doing what she had always dreamed of — teaching. Warren taught as a lecturer and professor at universities all across the country: Rutgers, UH, the University of Texas, the University of Michigan, the University of Pennsylvania, and, finally, Harvard University.
At Harvard, she became the highest-paid professor at the university who was not an administrator and one of the most well-respected and frequently-cited scholars in bankruptcy and commercial law. She also began her foray into public service, working as an advisor on bankruptcy legislation, playing a pivotal role in the establishment of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and in 2012, serving her first term as a U.S. Senator.
Like many students, Warren’s college experience was full of stops and starts, twists and turns, and ups and downs. She studied at three different universities, got married, and became pregnant twice before graduating from law school in 1976. Now, with over 40 years of experience studying and teaching on college campuses, there’s no doubt Warren is one of the most scholarly presidential candidates in American history.