With college costs spiraling out of control and Americans owing more student loans than ever before, college affordability and student loan debt reform have become hot-button topics among the 2020 presidential candidates.
And the issue is definitely an urgent one: J.P. Morgan estimates four years at a private college could cost roughly half a million dollars in 2036 if costs continue rising at their current pace, while the Brookings Institution projects 40% of student loan borrowers will default by 2023.
There is a wide field of candidates and a similarly wide variety of proposals, from tuition-free colleges to student loan forgiveness en masse. To keep track of it all, here’s our guide to the 2020 candidates and what they’re saying about the student debt crisis.
(Note that, other than Donald Trump and Bill Weld, all the candidates below are competing for the Democratic Party’s nomination.)
The Trump administration — including its leadership at the Department of Education, headed by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos — has proposed various changes to student loan repayment and forgiveness, but most of these have failed to pass through Congress.
Here’s what Republican standard bearer President Trump and his cabinet have done so far in addressing college costs and student loan debt reform, along with his proposals on the issue.
- Renewed the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, the main federal funding source for career and technical programs for high school and high school grads. By signing this bipartisan legislation, Trump allowed $1.2 billion per year to go to states in support of these programs.
- Called for more vocational schools in his 2018 State of the Union, along with increased investment in workforce development and job training.
- Eased regulations for for-profit colleges and challenged the borrower defense to repayment program, which cancels loans for students who were defrauded by for-profit colleges. After months of delay, a judge ruled that standing in the way of borrower defense was illegal and allowed the program to resume. Even after the ruling, however, the New York Times reported that the Department of Education had yet to approve any loan relief applications in the second half of 2018.
- Discussed a single income-driven repayment plan to replace the current plans, such as Income-Based Repayment and Pay As You Earn. Trump’s proposed plan would cap monthly payments at 12.5% of a borrower’s income and offer student loan forgiveness after 15 years for undergraduates and after 30 years for graduate students.
- Proposed repealing the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Trump’s 2017 and 2020 budget proposals both called for eliminating this loan forgiveness program, but this has yet to be taken up by Congress.
- Proposed eliminating subsidized loans, which don’t accrue interest during a grace period and are offered to low-income students.
- Outlined a funding cut of 10% to the Department of Education in the 2020 budget plan.
Joe Biden has discussed increasing funding for vocational programs, but most of his education proposals focus on K-12 rather than higher education. He does talk about simplifying the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program so professionals, such as teachers, have an easier path to loan forgiveness. He also wants to expand the Pell Grant program so students can earn credits at community colleges while they’re still in high school.
In addition, we can look to his past actions to see where he stands on the issue of college and student loan debt reform.
- In speeches he made in 2015 and 2018, Biden said he would support four-year free college for all. “We need to commit to 16 years of free public education for all our children,” Biden told White House reporters in 2015. “As a nation let’s make the same commitment to a college education today that we made to a high school education 100 years ago.”
- In the early 2000s, Biden backed a bill that made it harder for borrowers to discharge student loans through bankruptcy. But a decade later, he was part of the Obama administration when it proposed making it easier for borrowers to discharge student loans through bankruptcy, though no changes have been made yet.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed some of the most robust plans for tuition and student loan debt reform of any of the candidates so far. In April 2019, Warren and her team published a proposal on what she would do to solve these issues:
- Mass student loan forgiveness. Warren proposed forgiving up to $50,000 in federal student loans for all borrowers with a household income of $100,000 or less. Her plan would offer partial forgiveness to those who make between $100,000 and $250,000, and no forgiveness to those who make more than $250,000.
- Tuition-free colleges. In her proposal, Warren wrote: “My plan for universal free college will give every American the opportunity to attend a two-year or four-year public college without paying a dime in tuition or fees; make free college truly universal — not just in theory, but in practice — by making higher education of all kinds more inclusive and available to every single American, especially lower-income, Black, and Latinx students, without the need to take on debt to cover costs.”
- Expand the Pell Grant program. Warren proposed investing an additional $100 billion in Pell Grants, which go to students with financial need. She also suggested expanding eligibility criteria for Pell Grants to ensure more low-income and middle-class students can earn their degree without taking on debt.
- Implement the “Ultra-Millionaire Tax.” Warren said her debt cancellation and universal free college plan would be funded with a 2% annual tax on the 75,000 U.S. families who hold $50 million or more.
After making waves in the 2016 election, Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent running as a Democrat, is doing it again, proposing a total cancellation of student loan debt. And just as he did four years ago, Sanders is also calling attention to the need for college tuition reform, which he says can be solved with tuition-free public colleges and trade schools.
On his campaign website, Sanders says: “Today, we say to our young people that we want you to get the best education that you can, regardless of the income of your family. Good jobs require a good education. That is why we are going to make public colleges and universities tuition-free, and substantially lower the outrageous level of student debt that currently exists.”
To achieve this, he wants to:
- Cancel all outstanding U.S. student loans, totaling $1.56 trillion, regardless of borrowers’ income levels
- Eliminate tuition at public colleges, universities and trade schools
- Make college debt-free for all by expanding Pell Grants and requiring participating states and tribes to cover the cost of a degree for low-income students
- Cap student loan interest rates at 1.88%
- Increase funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
- Provide three times as much funding for the federal work-study program
Sanders has a record of supporting the free college movement. In 2016, he proposed tuition-free college, which he said could be achieved through funding on both the federal and state level, as well as through a tax on investment houses, hedge funds and others involved in stock trades.
In 2017, Sanders backed Hilary Clinton’s proposal to make college tuition-free for middle-class students and debt-free for all after she became the Democratic nominee. That same year, Sanders also introduced the College for All Act, which would offer tuition-free college to middle-class students and tuition-free community college for all.
As the youngest candidate in the 2020 presidential race, Mayor Pete Buttitieg of South Bend, Ind., has his own experience with student loans: From his education at Harvard and time at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, Buttigieg and his husband Chasten (who holds a master’s degree from DePaul University) piled up more than $140,000 in student loans.
Here’s what he has proposed on this close-to-home issue.
- Create debt-free college for lower-income families. Debt-free college is different from tuition-free college. It would allow low-income students to earn their degree without taking on student loans.
- Increase support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions.
- Expand Pell Grants. Buttigieg called for a large increase in Pell Grants to cover students’ living expenses and keep up with inflation.
- Buttigieg’s proposal says we must “confront student loan debt,” but doesn’t have further details yet on how he would do this.
- Support students entering public service. This suggests he would support or possibly expand the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program.
- Demand greater transparency and accountability among colleges and universities and apply stricter standards to for-profit colleges.
On her campaign website, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand says: “Student debt is an out-of-control crisis in this country, and it isn’t just a burden on individual graduates — it’s a drag on the whole economy.”
Some of her ideas to fix the problem include:
- Allowing students to refinance their federal student loans for lower rates. In a February 2019 tweet, she said students should be allowed to refinance their loans at a 4.0% rate. The current rates on federal Direct loans are 5.05% for undergraduates and 6.6% for graduate students.
- Make public four-year colleges and universities tuition- and fee-free for students from families that make $125,000 or less per year.
- Make community college tuition-free.
Gillibrand also supported Sen. Sanders’ College for All Act, as well as Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Brian Schatz’s Debt-Free College Act. (See more under “Sen. Cory Booker” below.)
Like Gillibrand, Sen. Kamala Harris also supported Senators Booker and Schatz’s bill and has stated her support for debt-free college. When she was attorney general in California, she helped prosecute Corinthian Colleges, a now-defunct chain of for-profit schools found to be defrauding students.
Here’s what she says about cracking down on for-profit colleges, making college more affordable, and reducing student debt:
- Allow borrowers to refinance their student loans to lower rates.
- Expand the Income-Based Repayment program.
- Make public four-year colleges debt-free for students.
- Eliminate tuition and fees at community colleges.
- Crack down on for-profit colleges and lenders.
- Provide an income boost to almost 1 in 7 Pell Grant recipients through a tax cut as part of her proposed LIFT Act.
As Harris wrote on her campaign website: “Students shouldn’t fear decades of debt just because they want to pursue an education.”
Although Sen. Cory Booker hasn’t outlined specific proposals to deal with the student loan crisis yet, he did co-sponsor the proposed Debt-Free College Act with Sen. Brian Schatz in March 2019, a bill which would boost federal funding to state colleges.
“Higher education is one of the surest paths to economic security and prosperity for Americans, but the astronomical price tag means that ladder of opportunity remains elusive for many students,” Booker said in a press release.
“Millions of students across the country are graduating with an unprecedented amount of student debt, and low-income students are hurt the most. By providing matching federal funds to states, our bill incentivizes states to help students pay for the full cost of a college degree — including the cost of living — without taking on debt,” he said.
Booker also proposed creating an account with $1,000 for each baby born in the U.S., which would be eligible for an annual deposit of up to $2,000. This savings account could be used to cover tuition fees in the future.
Unlike many other Democrats, Sen. Amy Klobuchar said she doesn’t support tuition-free college for everyone. Klobuchar doesn’t believe the country can afford free public college, but she supports other strategies for reducing student debt.
- Eliminate tuition at community colleges.
- Expand Pell Grants for low-income students.
- Offer student loan refinancing to borrowers so they can lower their rates. Klobuchar suggested a rate of around 3.0%.
- Allow students to use savings in 529 plans for alternative training programs, not just college.
Julián Castro, former secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former mayor of San Antonio, Texas
Julian Castro has put forth a robust plan for improving education, making college more affordable and easing student debt.
“Tuition rates have skyrocketed,” he wrote on his campaign website. “The federal government has failed to adequately step in to support students and universities — pushing more and more students towards costly loans that can at times be predatory. Make no mistake: This is a crisis.”
Castro suggests these actions:
- Get rid of tuition at public colleges, universities, community colleges, and technical and vocational schools.
- Mandate greater accountability among colleges and standards that include fair pay for staff and faculty.
- Ease the student loan debt burden by ensuring students don’t pay more than they can afford. Until borrowers earn more than 250% of the federal poverty line, they wouldn’t have to pay anything on their loans, and interest wouldn’t accrue for three years. After their income exceeds this benchmark, borrowers still wouldn’t pay more than 10% of their income. Borrowers would automatically enroll in this program, and it would replace the current system of income-driven repayment plans.
- Offer non-taxable forgiveness of any remaining balance after 240 monthly payments. This would include any period where the required monthly payment was determined to be $0.
- Expand the Pell Grant program so that the maximum grant is $10,000. (The maximum is currently $6,195 for the 2019-2020 year.)
- Invest an additional $3 billion per year in Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
- Design a five-year student loan forgiveness program aimed at helping low-income borrowers.
- Allow student loan discharge through bankruptcy.
- Reform the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program.
- Require that universities certify all private student loans and provide financial counseling to students.
- Streamline the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to make it easier for students and families.
- Get rid of public support for private for-profit colleges.
- Require greater transparency and accountability in higher education, especially when it comes to sharing data on college costs, degree completion and employment outcomes.
- Increase awareness of postsecondary education and financial aid, especially among low-income students.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard supports the free college movement.
“The cost of a college education is unattainable for too many,” she tweeted in October 2017. “We can guarantee #CollegeForAll by taxing Wall Street and investing in people.”
While in Congress, she co-sponsored Sanders’ College for All Act in the House. Gabbard — herself a combat veteran — has also backed measures to increase vets’ access to college, including lowering the deployment time needed for veterans to qualify for Perkins Loan forgiveness.
Beto O’Rourke has come out in favor of student loan forgiveness for public school teachers. Unlike the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Plan, which forgives up to $17,500 for those who teach certain subjects, O’Rourke’s proposal would forgive all debt for all teachers who work in public schools.
Beyond loan forgiveness for teachers, O’Rourke’s campaign website doesn’t provide many specifics on student loans, but it does suggest he debt-free college: “Let’s graduate young women and men from high school who are career ready as well as college ready, able to pursue debt-free higher education or a job that provides purpose and a real paycheck.”
In past speeches and interviews, O’Rourke has expressed his support for free community college and four-year college. He’s also in favor of refinancing options for borrowers who want to lower their rates.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang wants to introduce a Universal Basic Income (UBI) of $1,000 per month to all Americans, money which recipients could use to cover tuition costs.
Yang, himself a student loan borrower, also has other ideas for college affordability and student loan debt reform:
- Propose the 10×10 Student Loan Emancipation Act, which would require 10 years of payments no greater than 10% of a borrower’s salary. After 10 years, the remaining balance would be forgiven. The government would also buy private loans so borrowers with private student loans could opt in.
- Explore immediate partial student loan forgiveness for borrowers, as well as total forgiveness for everyone after a certain period of time, such as 30 years.
- Demand greater accountability from the government to ensure it doesn’t profit from student loan borrowers.
- Make it easier for borrowers to discharge student loans through bankruptcy.
- Prosecute for-profit schools that have defrauded or misled students.
- Close institutions that show consistently poor employment outcomes or high loan defaults.
- Expand loan forgiveness options for graduates who work in rural or underserved areas.
- Ask colleges to forgive loans of students who left before earning their degree.
“It’s deeply immoral what we have done to young people in this country,” Yang told Student Loan Hero. “We need to make very big changes.”
Wayne Messam has a straightforward solution to solving the student loan crisis: forgive all student debt.
“The explosion in student loan debt has reached crisis levels,” he writes. “Before we can make college affordable for the next generation, we must provide relief for the roughly one-in-four adult Americans now struggling with student loans.”
Messam proposes 100% forgiveness of all federal student loans, saying this move would provide immediate financial relief to borrowers and stimulate the economy as a whole.
Along with immediate discharge of all federal student loans, Messam’s campaign website notes a few other priorities:
- Provide additional support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
- Expand and improve the Pell Grant program.
While John Hickenlooper hasn’t released formal proposals on the student debt crisis, he did suggest he would make community college free for all. He also supports bringing down interest rates on student loans, potentially as low as 2.5%. Finally, he supports loan forgiveness in exchange for public service.
Although Sen. Michael Bennet doesn’t necessarily support tuition-free college for all, he seems to be in favor of debt-free college. In 2016, he worked with other senators on the Progressive Change Campaign Committee to explore how to make colleges debt-free.
After announcing his run for president, Bennet doubled down on this idea. “Getting to free college for everybody is not a very progressive way to approach this because a lot of wealthy kids will benefit from that, but let’s see if we can get you out debt-free,” he told ABC News.
Along with helping low-income and middle-class students attend college without taking on debt, Bennet wants to promote career and technical programs, simplify the financial aid process, and expand the Pell Grant program.
During his time as governor of Montana, Steve Bullock has pushed for more state funding for colleges and a tuition freeze at Montana’s state colleges. Regarding the free college movement, Bullock has argued for more emphasis on apprenticeships and training programs that would prepare students for work.
Rep. John Delaney has outlined a few ideas for college and student loan debt reform on his campaign website, including:
- Make student loans more affordable. Although he doesn’t specify how he’ll do this, Delaney might mean lowering the interest rate or establishing a federal refinancing program.
- Expand grants for low-income students.
- Allow borrowers to discharge federal and private student loans through bankruptcy.
- Encourage technical training and apprenticeship programs among young people.
The former senator for Alaska supports tuition-free college and blanket student loan forgiveness. His campaign website proposes the following:
- The federal government should provide funding directly to states to make public colleges and graduate schools tuition-free.
- The government should forgive all federal student debt in a one-time “Student Debt Jubilee.”
- The government should forgive private student loan debt in the amount of $25,000 per borrower.
Although the core focus of Gov, Jay Inslee’s campaign is the fight against climate change, he has done his part to combat the student loan crisis in his state of Washington. In March of 2018, he signed the Washington Student Education Loan Bill of Rights, which provides stronger protections for student loan borrowers. And earlier this year, Inslee worked on ramping up financial aid for Washington students from low-income backgrounds.
Rep. Seth Moulton has a unique idea for making college more accessible for Americans. On his campaign website, Moulton suggested a program that would provide education and job training benefits for anyone who serves in the military, AmeriCorps or a new federal Green Corps.
Those who serve for one year would get an education stipend of 60% of in-state tuition or a job training grant of $14,000. For two years, those benefits would increase to 80% or $19,000. For three years, they’d go up to 100% of in-state tuition or $24,000 for training.
During a CNN town hall, Moulton said tuition-free college was “a great aspiration” but emphasized the importance of supporting vocational and job training schools. While he said “we absolutely should consider” student loan forgiveness, he added that the government should first support those who don’t have access to college.
Rep. Tim Ryan hasn’t yet detailed his student loan reform plank, but he did throw his support behind the College For All Act, as well as other similar legislation.
“College should not only be for the privileged few,” said Ryan in a 2018 press release. “It is a benefit for all, and must be seen that way. No individual or family should be burdened with crushing debt that will stifle opportunity when the whole point of attending college is to grow through new opportunities.”
On July 9, billionaire Tom Steyer announced his bid for the Democratic nomination for president. With a history of environmental activism, Steyer has recently focused his attention on calling for President Trump’s impeachment.
According to reports, Steyer’s focus is on combating climate change and promoting renewable energy. At this time, Steyer hasn’t yet made any formal proposals on the issues of student loan debt or college reform.
Author and activist Marianne Williamson supports the free college and student loan forgiveness movements. These are her ideas for college and student loan reform.
- Tuition-free college or technical school for qualified students.
- Expanded student loan forgiveness programs and options. Williamson mentions reducing the required on-time payments from 120 (10 years’ worth) to 60 (five years’ worth), apparently referring to the PSLF program.
- Significantly reduce the interest rates on student loans.
- Eliminate annual borrowing limits for federal subsidized loans.
- Expand options for trade and technical programs.
- Provide low-cost education options for those in middle and older age.
As a Republican running against the incumbent Donald Trump for his party’s nomination, Bill Weld told New Hampshire Public Radio that student debt would be “very high” on his agenda. The former Massachusetts governor said he would seek to bring down the cost of college, as well as allow for federal student debt to be renegotiated.
Weld also supports the introduction of federal student loan refinancing for borrowers.
Student Loan Hero will update this post as the candidates make new statements on student loan debt and related issues.
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