Where the 2020 Presidential Candidates Actually Stand on Student Debt
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Editor’s note: This post was updated October 2019 to reflect current candidates.
You’d probably be hard-pressed to find a high-profile politician, these days, who’d disagree that a student debt crisis exists in the United States—or that the problem is still growing.
Some 43 million borrowers owe more than $1.5 trillion in federal government loans, according to numbers from the U.S. Department of Education’s office of Federal Student Aid. That’s more than $33,000 per borrower on average.
And in the first quarter of 2019, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reports 10.9% of aggregate student debt was 90-plus days delinquent or in default.
Finding solutions? That’s where the debate comes in.
The high cost of college tuition and how to pay for it already has become a hot-button topic for those aspiring to become president in 2020. And not just because it’s an issue of interest to younger voters.
A 2018 study by the Association of Young Americans (AYA) and AARP found that 12% of baby boomers, 34% of Gen Xers, and 48% of Millennials had a student loan either for themselves or someone else. And all three generations said their student debt had prevented them from saving for retirement, buying a car, and/or buying a house.
Nearly every candidate running for president addresses higher education costs and student debt on his or her official 2020 campaign website. Some have elaborate proposals (we’re looking at you, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Julian Castro), while others have gone broader with their pitches.
Here’s a look at what the candidates have had to say so far, and what they may have pushed for in the past:
Democratic Candidates Student Debt Plans:
Former Vice President of the U.S. and former U.S. Senator for Delaware
Biden is one of those candidates who hasn’t yet released a formal plan for handling student debt, but he has said he will help teachers and other educators pay off their student loans by making sure the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF) is “fixed, simplified, and actually helps teachers.”
Biden has a long history in politics, and he already has taken some hits for backing legislation (as a U.S. senator in the 1990s and early-2000s) that made it tougher to discharge student loan debt through bankruptcy.
But he was also a member of the Obama administration, which attempted to ease parts of the bankruptcy legislation that affects private student loans and created some protections for borrowers.
Biden hasn’t endorsed other candidates’ proposals to make public colleges tuition-free, but he did tell reporters in 2015 that he supported “16 years of free public education for all our children” while announcing that he wouldn’t run for president in 2016.
U.S. Senator for New Jersey
Booker hasn’t issued a comprehensive proposal regarding student debt, but his website states his support of the following:
• establishing a path to debt-free college attendance
• moving toward tuition-free community college and vocational training
• simplifying and reforming how students apply for federal financial aid
• accountability for student loan servicers regarding any predatory practices
And as a senator, he has introduced legislation that demonstrates his advocacy for these issues.
In March, Booker, Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI), and others reintroduced the Debt-Free College Act . If signed into law, this act would create a state and federal partnership to provide a matching grant program for funding.
And in June, Booker asked the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to look at how racial disparities disproportionately affect student debt.
With that wealth gap in mind, Booker introduced a bill in 2018 that would give every child a $1,000 interest-bearing savings account at birth. The account, which would be managed by the Treasury Department, would earn about 3% interest, and the government would deposit up to $2,000 a year (depending on family income) until the account holder turned 18. That young adult could then withdraw the money to pay for college or buy a home.
Mayor of South Bend, Indiana
Buttigieg has been upfront about the six-figure student debt he and his husband are still paying . He mentioned it during the first Democratic debate and confirmed to FOX Business in June that the exact amount is $131,296.
On his campaign website, Buttigieg advocates for a “state-federal partnership that makes public tuition affordable for all and completely free at lower incomes” along with an increase in Pell Grants for basic living expenses. He also has spoken out about making student loan refinancing easier for borrowers, offering more support for students who wish to enter public service, and ensuring higher standards for for-profit schools.
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and former Mayor of San Antonio
Castro’s People First Education plan released in May is one of the more in-depth proposals issued by a 2020 candidate so far.
It ranges from improving pre-kindergarten for all children to “Creating Affordable Pathways to Success After High School” and “Elevating the Profession of Teaching.”
“Make no mistake, this is a crisis,” Castro writes. “More and more students are defaulting on their loans, tanking their credit for years to come.”
Some of the reforms his comprehensive proposal addresses include:
• eliminating tuition at most post-secondary schools and universities, plus technical and vocational schools
• reworking the student loan repayment process with caps based on income, interest accumulation, and number of payments made
• improving the PSLF Program
• allowing borrowers to discharge or structure a payment plan through bankruptcy
U.S. Representative for Hawaii
Tulsi Gabbard was a major in the U.S. National Guard who served two tours of duty in the Middle East, and has introduced legislation to improve the GI Bill benefits that veterans use to pay for their education. But her interest in student debt doesn’t end there.
She has supported legislation to lessen the burden of student loans, and introduced the Pathways to Affordable Education Act—aimed at improving Pell Grants—in her first term in the House. She also supported the HELP for Students and Parents Act, which would offer tax credits to companies that help pay off their employees’ student loans.
Gabbard also supports Senator Bernie Sanders’ College for All Act, which would eliminate undergraduate tuition at four-year public colleges and universities, and reform student loan interest rates.
U.S. Senator for California and former Attorney General of California
Harris is another candidate who has her eye on future college costs and the current state of student debt.
As California’s attorney general, Harris sued for-profit Corinthian Colleges Inc. and its subsidiaries for false and predatory advertising, intentional misrepresentation to students, securities fraud and unlawful use of military seals in advertisements. The lawsuit obtained more than $1 billion in relief for students.
Her campaign site says that if she’s elected president, she’ll continue working on the student debt crisis by:
• allowing borrowers to refinance high-interest loans to lower rates
• expanding income-driven repayment programs
• cracking down on private colleges and lenders that defraud students
Harris was a co-sponsor of the Debt Free College Act of 2018, and is a co-sponsor of Gillibrand’s 2019 PSLF legislation. She also was a supporter of Senator Sanders’ College for All Act in 2017.
U.S. Senator for Minnesota
Although Klobuchar hasn’t embraced the four-years-tuition-free public education plans some Democratic candidates are proposing, she does want to ease the financial burden that comes with attending college.
“I wish I could staple a free college diploma under every one of your chairs. I do. Don’t look. It’s not there,” she told the audience at an April CNN town hall meeting in New Hampshire.
Klobuchar supports the following:
• tuition-free one- and two-year community college degrees and technical certificates
• allowing borrowers to refinance student loans at lower interest rates
• offering loan forgiveness for in-demand occupations
• expanding Pell grants
This year, Klobuchar reintroduced a bill that would allow workers to use tax-advantaged college savings plans (529 plans ) to pay for licensing, credentialing, and other training programs.
U.S. Representative for Massachusetts
So far, O’Rourke hasn’t spoken much about student debt on the campaign trail, and the topic isn’t covered on his campaign website. His focus to date has been more on public education for K-12 students than higher education.
At a recent National Education Association (NEA) forum for 2020 candidates, O’Rourke talked briefly about offering 100% student loan debt forgiveness “if you’re willing to dedicate your life to public service,” but he didn’t get into the details of how that would work.
He also has mentioned his support for giving low-income students the opportunity to attend college cost-free for two years and lowering the interest rate on student loan refinancing.
U.S. Senator for Vermont
Sanders brought his ideas about student debt and tuition-free college to the forefront during his 2016 campaign for president, and he continues to push those policies as a senator and 2020 presidential hopeful.
His College for All Act proposes:
• eliminating undergraduate tuition at four-year public colleges and universities
• lowering interest rates for current student borrowers and those who choose to refinance
• simplifying the application to receive student aid
• expanding work-study programs at schools that enroll a high number of low-income students
(Sanders introduced similar bills in 2015 and 2017.)
In June, Sanders also revealed a plan to erase the country’s outstanding student debt—relieving 45 million borrowers of their burdensome loans—regardless of income. He explains his thoughts on that sweeping move, including how he’ll pay for it, at length on his campaign website.
U.S. Senator for Massachusetts
Warren often talks about the opportunities higher education has provided her as a teacher, law professor, and senator. But, she writes in a blog post on Medium, “Today, it’s virtually impossible for a young person to find that kind of opportunity.”
High tuition costs have led to a huge student loan burden “that’s crushing millions of families and acting as an anchor on our economy,” she says.
Her proposal? To cancel $50,000 in debt for borrowers with a household income of less than $100,000, then phase down the amount by $1 for every $3 in income above $100,000. (So a person with a household income of $130,000 would get $40,000 in debt canceled, a person with a household income of $160,000 would get $30,000 in debt canceled, and so on.) The plan offers no debt cancellation to people with a household income above $250,000.
Warren also proposes eliminating the cost of tuition and fees at every two- and four-year public college. And she wants to expand Pell Grants over the next decade to ensure that lower- and middle-income students can have a better shot at graduating without debt.
Like Sanders, she has a plan for how to pay for it all. In May, Warren, along with others in the Senate and House (including Rep. John Katko, R-N.Y.) introduced the bicameral Student Loan Borrower Bankruptcy Act of 2019.
This Act would get rid of the section of the U.S. bankruptcy code that prevents federal and private student loans from being dischargeable. Warren has also introduced or supported past bills that have addressed student loan refinancing.
Entrepreneur and Attorney
Yang is clear on his campaign website about his goals for higher education: He wants to reduce costs and “prevent students from being saddled with lifelong student loan debt.”
His cost-cutting ideas include reducing the ratio of college administrators to students. Yang also plans to revisit the tax-exempt status of schools that can afford to fund their operations and aren’t investing the money they make back into their students.
Yang also outlines two specific plans for reducing student debt, including:
• The “Bailout for the People,” which would explore a “blanket partial reduction” in the principal on student loans.
• The “10×10 Student Loan Emancipation Act,” in which the federal government would buy student loan debt at a negotiated rate with private lenders, then allow students to repay it by pledging 10% of their salary per year for 10 years. After this time, the balance would be forgiven.
Yang is also a supporter of changing bankruptcy laws in order to make discharging educational debt easier for borrowers. If elected president, he would police and prosecute any schools that misrepresent what they have to offer through their marketing.
Republican Candidates Student Debt Plans:
The president doesn’t talk much about student debt these days, but there are changes coming if certain 2020 budget proposals from his administration go through.
Among them, the administration wants to simplify federal loan repayment by reducing the options to just two: the standard 10-year plan, and an income-driven plan that would cap repayments at 12.5% of discretionary income and offer loan forgiveness after 15 years.
Other administration proposals target the PSLF Program, subsidized student loans, and the amount parents and graduate students can borrow from the government.
When he was campaigning for his first term as president, Trump questioned why the government was making money on student loans.
“I think it’s terrible that one of the only profit centers we have is student loans,” he said in a 2015 interview with The Hill. And it appears that’s still an issue for him, based on goals listed in the budget proposal, which include striking a balance between student needs and taxpayer interests and reducing the role for the federal government in education.
Trump’s campaign website addresses steps Secretary Betsy DeVos and the Department of Education are taking to reform the student aid process including: the implementation of year-round Pell grants, reforms to the access and servicing of government loans, and reducing “harmful regulations while maintaining protections for students.”
Libertarian Party nominee for Vice President in 2016 and former Republican Governor of Massachusetts
As the father of three Millennials, Weld says, he’s familiar with young adults graduating with thousands—even hundreds of thousands—of dollars in student debt.
He says in an April interview with New Hampshire Public Radio that the cost of college education would be a high priority issue for him.
Among the plans he’s discussed is making in-state tuition free for displaced workers at two-year post-secondary schools. He is also a proponent of using online classes to cut the cost of living on or near campus.
Weld agrees with other candidates that borrowers should be able to refinance their federal loans at a lower rate.
As the presidential race continues, the candidates will likely expand on their thoughts regarding student loan debt and possible reforms.
If you’re a student loan borrower and this is a pocketbook issue for you, you can track what the field of presidential hopefuls has to say in the news or on their campaign websites.
While there, you can sign up for their mailing lists and look for campaign events in your area, and many sites include an email address if you’d like to send a message.
External Websites: The information and analysis provided through hyperlinks to third party websites, while believed to be accurate, cannot be guaranteed by SoFi. Links are provided for informational purposes and should not be viewed as an endorsement.
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