Over the last four years, college affordability and student debt have taken on a bigger role in presidential politics, but how to deal with the problem is still a contentious issue among the candidates in 2020.
Just about every Democrat running for president has endorsed one of a variety of plans to make at least some public colleges or technical schools tuition-free or debt-free. All have proposed ways to reduce or even cancel student debt.
Public higher education institutions are run by state and local governments, and the federal government is limited in how much it can affect their decisions. A plan by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., would have the federal government pay two-thirds of the cost of free tuition (about $47 billion per year, according to his office’s estimate) and put states on the hook for the remaining third.
To collect the funds, states would have to pledge to eliminate tuition and fees while maintaining their current funding levels for education. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has put forward a similar plan. Of course, it’s possible some states would choose not to participate.
Other candidates have proposed different approaches. Several, including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey, Kamala Harris of California and Warren are signed onto a bill that would provide 1:1 matching funds to states that commit to use the money to pursue “debt-free” public college for students to help them graduate without taking on loans. Still others like former Vice President Joe Biden have backed making college tuition-free, but only for two-year community colleges, an idea President Barack Obama proposed.
On student debt, Sanders and Warren again represent the left flank of the party. Warren put out a means-tested plan to cancel up to $50,000 in student debt per individual. Households making as much as $250,000 could qualify for at least some debt cancellation, which would cover 95 percent of student debt holders by Warren’s estimate and wipe out all loans for 75 percent of student debt holders. Sanders has gone even further, proposing a wholesale elimination of all $1.6 trillion in student debt at once, financed by new taxes on financial transactions. Warren estimates her plan would remove $640 billion of debt.
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Other candidates have proposed more limited changes to student debt, like allowing people to refinance loans at lower rates or putting new limits on how much needs to be paid back each month as a share of their income.
Many Democratic candidates also have proposed making it easier to discharge student loans in bankruptcy proceedings, where it’s harder to eliminate in comparison to other kinds of debt. Some, like Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, have called for allowing students to eliminate debt by working in public service. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas has called for canceling all student debt held by public school teachers. Harris has a plan to allow people who start a business in underserved communities to eliminate their debt.
What supporters of tuition-free college/canceling debt say
Americans looking for work are stuck in an increasingly difficult spot: To obtain many high-paying jobs, they need a college education or technical degree, but the costs of education are rising and total student debt has more than doubled over the last decade.
This situation was made worse by the Great Recession, which forced many state governments to cut education budgets and raise tuition at public colleges and universities to make up for a decline in tax revenue. With job opportunities more limited during the recovery, many students were saddled with a combination of high student debt and relatively low wages.
Supporters of a one-time mass cancellation of student loans argue that these circumstances created a unique buildup of debt that is preventing younger Americans from buying a home, having children or starting new businesses. By removing the burden, they argue, these groups would be free to spend more and boost the economy. Older Americans, who are increasingly affected by student debt, would also have an easier path to retire.
“What folks need to understand is that there have been some major policy mistakes,” said Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University and an advocate for tuition-free college and debt cancellation. “It’s led to a lot of people being in bad shape.”
Proponents of debt cancellation have also made the case that it would help close the racial wealth gap in America, since black and Latino households are disproportionately affected by student debt and college costs. Many of the candidates also propose boosting funding for historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.
Even as many college graduates are struggling, though, the overall benefits of higher education are still clear. Workers with college degrees on average earn higher wages and are less likely to be unemployed than those without them.
Because higher education has become a prerequisite for so many good-paying jobs, proponents of tuition-free college say it should be treated similarly to K-12 education as a public right.
Applying the benefits broadly across a wide range of incomes will reinforce that idea, they argue, and help build political traction with middle-class voters who might object to spending exclusively on low-income households. It will also free up existing state and federal aid to provide additional help to low-income students with costs besides tuition, such as housing, making it more likely they’ll be able to attend and graduate.
What do critics of the programs say?
Critics of tuition-free college and broad student debt cancellation argue that the benefits will flow to too many Americans who are relatively well off and that the money would be better spent on more vulnerable groups.