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 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, Joe Walsh and Mark Sanford are the Republican candidates, while the others are competing for the Democratic Party’s nomination.
- Donald Trump
- Elizabeth Warren
- Kamala Harris
- Joe Biden
- Bernie Sanders
- Pete Buttigieg
- Cory Booker
- Amy Klobuchar
- Julián Castro
- Tulsi Gabbard
- Beto O’Rourke
- Andrew Yang
- Wayne Messam
- Michael Bennet
- Steve Bullock
- John Delaney
- Tim Ryan
- Marianne Williamson
- Tom Steyer
- Mark Sanford
- 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.
When Sen. Kamala Harris was attorney general in California, she helped prosecute Corinthian Colleges, a now-defunct chain of for-profit schools found to be defrauding students. She also backed Senators Booker and Schatz’s bill (see Corey Booker section below) and has stated her support for debt-free college.
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.
- Invest in historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs).
- Establish a student loan forgiveness program for Pell Grant recipients that would cancel $20,000 in loans for those who started and ran a business in a disadvantaged community for at least three years. These borrowers could also have their student loans deferred interest-free for up to three years, as they establish their businesses.
- 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.”
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.
- Create debt-free college for lower-income families. Though not the same as tuition-free education, debt-free college would nonetheless cover costs for at least some students. Buttigieg’s campaign website says his administration would accomplish this through a state-federal partnership that would also make tuition at public colleges affordable for all, and free for low-income students.
- Increase support for 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.
- 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.
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. His campaign website also notes his support for providing student loan refinancing options and simplifying the financial aid and student loan process.
“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 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 Public Service Loan Forgiveness, Income-Based Repayment and the American Opportunity Tax Credit.
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 (HBCUs).
- 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.
But while Gabbard said student debt is “crushing” a generation, she also said she objects to providing tuition-free college for undocumented students.
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 after five years.
Beyond loan forgiveness for teachers, O’Rourke’s campaign website states his support for the following:
- Provide free community college for all students.
- Eliminate the cost of tuition for the first two years at state and technical institutions.
- Provide debt-free college options for low- and middle-income students.
- Offer federal student loan refinancing options so borrowers can lower their interest rates on their private student loans.
- Expand the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program and provide partial student loan forgiveness (10%) every year.
- Require colleges to be more accountable for student outcomes and crack down on predatory for-profit schools.
- Invest in apprenticeship and technical certificate programs, particularly those that lead to high-demand jobs that pay living wages.
- Provide greater support for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), as well as for other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs).
O’Rourke says: “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.”
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 (HBCUs).
- Expand and improve the Pell Grant program.
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.
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.
Here are his main proposals on student loans and higher education:
- Invest in Pell Grants and expand eligibility to serve more families.
- Make tuition free at community colleges and support states that have already eliminated tuition at community colleges.
- Lower the interest rates on federal student loans, and provide federal refinancing options if interest rates go down.
- Expand public service student loan repayment programs.
- Provide tax credits to employers who help their employees pay off their student loans.
- Increase investment in HBCUs and MSIs.
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.
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.”
Author and activist Marianne Williamson supports the free college and student loan forgiveness movements. In fact, she said that “the best thing you could do to stimulate the U.S. economy is to get rid of this debt.” 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.
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.”
In September 2019, Mark Sanford — a former governor of South Carolina, who also served as a member of Congress — announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination for president. A fiscal conservative, Sanford’s signature issue is the federal deficit and growing national debt, with his campaign website saying the problem poses “a clear and present danger to our republic.”
So far, Sanford hasn’t spoken much on the subject of student loans or college costs, but his website says: “Education is key, and to compete effectively in the 21st century, it’s vital every one of us recognize how lifelong learning is important. It must start early, and it’s never finished. In this, I believe in as many choices as possible that reflect the different ways we learn.”
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.