With college costs spiraling out of control and Americans owing more student loans than ever before, college affordability and student loan debt reform are one of the hot-button topics among the 2020 presidential candidates.
And the issue is definitely an urgent one: Financial advisory firm Wealthfront estimates four years at a private college could cost roughly $300,000 in 2036 if prices 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 presidential 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 Donald Trump, Bill Weld and Joe Walsh are the Republican candidates, while the others are competing for the Democratic Party’s nomination.
- Donald Trump
- Elizabeth Warren
- Joe Biden
- Bernie Sanders
- Pete Buttigieg
- Amy Klobuchar
- Tulsi Gabbard
- Andrew Yang
- Michael Bennet
- Deval Patrick
- Michael Bloomberg
- John Delaney
- Tom Steyer
- Bill Weld
- Joe Walsh
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 student loan forgiveness for disabled veterans and removed tax liability on those discharged loans. Trump also called for states to waive state taxes on loans forgiven through “total and permanent disability discharge.”
- 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.
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.
Warren’s campaign website now has an interactive tool that shows borrowers how much loan forgiveness they could receive under her student loan cancellation plan.
In October 2019, Joe Biden released details of his plan for higher education, which involves a $750 billion investment over 10 years. Here are some of his major proposals:
- Offer two years of tuition-free community college to students, both full-time and part-time, including DREAMers
- Create a grant program that will help community colleges provide better outcomes for their students
- Support community college students by allowing them to use Pell Grants and other aid to cover living expenses, as well as incentivize community colleges to partner with local organizations to provide support services for students
- Invest $50 billion into workforce training, such as apprenticeships and community college business partnerships
- Channel $8 billion into community colleges to improve their facilities
- Double the value of Pell Grants and make them accessible to more Americans
- Simplify income-driven repayment plans, and allow student loan borrowers who make less than $25,000 to reduce their payments to $0 without accruing interest on their debt. Borrowers who make more than $25,000 annually would pay just 5% of their discretionary income (the current plans cap payments at 10% or more) and be eligible for forgiveness after 20 years.
- Simplify the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and allow eligible borrowers to get $10,000 in forgiveness annually for up to five years
- Crack down on predatory for-profit schools and require that all institutions prove their value before accessing federal financial aid
- Increase investments in Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Minority-Serving Institutions
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, a move which Sanders says would boost the economy by about $1 trillion over the next 10 years and create 1.6 million new jobs annually. He also says canceling student debt would give millions of Americans the resources they need to buy a home, purchase a car or start a small business.
- 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 (HBCUs).
- 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.
Previously, Sanders backed Hillary Clinton’s proposal to make college tuition-free for middle-class students and debt-free for all after she became the Democratic nominee. But Sanders’ College for All Act goes even further, covering the tuition for all students at public universities or community colleges.
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.
- Invest $500 billion into higher education to make college more affordable, and make public college tuition-free for 80% of students from families that make up to $100,000.
- Invest $50 billion in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs).
- Expand Pell Grants. Buttigieg called for a large increase in Pell Grants to cover students’ living expenses and keep up with inflation.
- 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, while allowing the cancellation of debt for borrowers who attended “unaffordable for-profit programs.”
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 and increase award amounts to $12,000 per year.
- 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.
- Continue to support Income-Based Repayment and the American Opportunity Tax Credit.
- Invest in apprenticeships and expand career services for students in order to connect students with jobs.
- Work with states to provide micro-grants to students who experience financial hardship.
- Expand the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program to ensure that in-demand occupations are eligible for loan forgiveness.
- Ensure that student loan borrowers who were defrauded by their schools have a path to loan cancellation.
- Strengthen support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) and Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs).
- Increase STEM education, especially for underrepresented groups.
- Remove barriers to education for various groups, including veterans, homeless and foster youth, students with disabilities and student parents.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii)
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.
But while Gabbard said student debt is “crushing” a generation, she also said she objects to providing tuition-free college for undocumented students.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang wants to introduce a Universal Basic Income 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.”
Although Sen. Michael Bennet doesn’t necessarily support tuition-free college for all, he is 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.
On his campaign website, Bennet proposes the following reforms:
- Provide free community college for all students through a combination of federal funding and state support.
- Provide a debt-free education at four-year public colleges for low- and middle-income families, particularly those who make less than 300% of the federal poverty threshold (or about $75,000).
- Expand support for Pell Grants and other financial aid.
- Work with states to make public colleges more affordable.
- Collect data on student outcomes so that students and families can see how adequately a college prepares its graduates for post-college success.
- Make schools and programs more accountable by denying federal financial aid to schools with poor student outcomes.
- Invest in career and technical training and apprenticeship programs.
- Cap student loans payments at 8% of income and provide forgiveness after 20 years for borrowers who have consistently made on-time payments.
- Provide federal student loan refinancing options for qualifying borrowers.
- Make it easier for student loan borrowers to discharge student debt through bankruptcy.
- Provide loan forgiveness of $10,000 per year for up to four years for those who work in public service or in high-need jobs in underserved communities, such as teachers, nurses and physicians.
Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts, announced his bid for president in November 2019. Although he hasn’t outlined his policy proposals yet, Patrick has said he sees the need to reduce current levels of student debt.
Regarding Warren’s and Sanders’s plans for mass student loan forgiveness, however, Patrick suggested he would favor “other strategies.”
Patrick may also support free community college, having proposed tuition-free community college in 2007 during his governorship in Massachusetts. As governor, he also pushed forward strategies to make it easier for two-year college students to transfer to four-year schools.
Previous three-time mayor of New York and founder of a major financial media company, Michael Bloomberg announced his bid for the presidency in late November 2019. Although he hasn’t officially shared his stance on student loan forgiveness, Bloomberg has said that “no qualified high school student should ever be barred entrance to a college based on his or her family’s bank account.”
In late 2018, Bloomberg gifted $1.8 billion to his alma mater Johns Hopkins to support financial aid and ensure the college practices need-blind admissions (in which a student’s ability to pay for tuition isn’t a factor in their acceptance to the school).
His organization, Bloomberg Philanthropies, also partnered with America Achieves to launch College Point, a group that provides free college and financial aid counseling to high-achieving students from low- and moderate-income families.
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. Delaney has discussed shortening the repayment terms for income-driven repayment so that student loan borrowers receive forgiveness two years earlier. He’s also discussed reducing interest rates on federal student loans and allowing borrowers to refinance up to $27,000 in student loans with the federal government.
- Offer two free years of community college or career training through a state-federal partnership.
- 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 and increase federal investment in STEM programs.
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 Trump’s impeachment.
Steyer’s focus is on combating climate change and promoting renewable energy, as well as tamping down corporate and special interest influence. Regarding education, Steyer says the following on his campaign website:
“Without guaranteed access to a good education, there’s no such thing as equal opportunity. Our government must protect the right to a free, quality, public education from preschool through college and on to skills training.”
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.
Former U.S. representative and conservative talk radio host Joe Walsh announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination on Aug. 25, 2019. Once a Trump supporter, Walsh has since reversed his opinion on the current president.
He’s made a number of controversial remarks throughout his time in the public eye, but so far has not said much on student debt in the U.S. According to recently revealed personal financial reports, Walsh owed between $10,000 and $15,000 in student loans at the end of his time in Congress.
Student Loan Hero will update this post as the candidates make new statements on student loan debt and related issues.