Free College, Student-Debt Forgiveness, and Pell Grant Expansion Dominate Higher-Ed Policy for Top Democratic Candidates

As the Democratic presidential primary race heats up and the list of candidates is winnowed, it’s time to take stock of their positions on higher education’s hot-button issues.

Here we look at the stances of the half-dozen candidates who participated in the final primary debate, in Iowa on January 14. This list may be updated as the campaign continues.

Here are the nuts and bolts on how each would push top higher-education policy concerns from the Oval Office.

Free College

Variations of tuition- and debt-free college are proposed by five of the six candidates, with community-college students as some of the primary benefactors.

According to his official campaign website, Joe Biden, the former vice president, plans to make college more affordable by providing two years of tuition-free community college, with the federal government covering 75 percent of the costs and states making up the rest. In the case of Native American tribes that run community colleges catering to low-income students, the federal government would cover 95 percent of the costs. Biden would institute a first-dollar aid program, which would allow students to cover expenses beyond tuition and fees with federal and state aid.

In the plan shared by his campaign, Pete Buttigieg, on the other hand, is one of the few candidates on this list who is opposed to universal free college. Instead, he proposes debt-free college for low-income families. While answering a question on the topic in the final Democratic presidential primary debate in Iowa, he said public colleges should be free for only the bottom 80 percent of Americans by income. Under his plan, tuition would be free for students in families earning up to $100,000. Tuition subsidies would be available for families earning up to $150,000 but would be tiered depending on income, and exact levels have yet to be defined, according to a campaign staffer.

According to a post of her plan on Medium, Amy Klobuchar intends to institute tuition-free community college and use federal funds to match state-invested dollars toward students who qualify for in-state tuition, are enrolled at least part time, and maintain good academic standing. Under her plan, the federal government would pay $3 for every $1 paid by a state.

Bernie Sanders has the boldest intentions for free college, planning to invest $48 billion annually to make tuition free at two-year and four-year public, historically black, tribal, and minority-serving colleges, according to his campaign website. He plans to have the federal government pay for two-thirds of the costs — slightly less than Biden’s plan — with states and tribes making up the difference. States and tribes must sustain spending levels on several educational checkpoints, including need-based financial aid, to keep federal funding. Additionally, states and tribes participating in the plan would be required to cover the full cost of low-income students, with matching federal funds for any additional spending toward reducing the cost of attendance.

The billionaire Tom Steyer has spoken very little about free college. He has noted that he sees “public education from universal pre-kindergarten through college as a right,” according to his campaign website. His campaign did not respond to a Chronicle inquiry seeking more details.

And on her campaign website, Elizabeth Warren proposes some form of tuition- and debt-free college at two-year and four-year public colleges, the latter ideology only shared by Sanders. Costs would be split between federal and state governments at a 2-to-1 ratio, and states would be held accountable for maintaining levels of spending on need-based financial aid and academic instruction, according to a campaign staffer.

Student-Debt Forgiveness

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program can expect sweeping renovations, while debt cancellation stands front and center of two candidates’ plans.

Under Biden’s plan, borrowers earning less than $25,000 per year would not owe any payments on undergraduate loans or accrue interest until they begin to earn more, according to a campaign staffer. Those who earn more would be required to pay 5 percent of their discretionary income, half of what borrowers are normally asked to pay. Responsibly paid loans would be forgiven after 20 years on an income-based plan. Biden also pledges to re-enact the Obama administration’s borrower-defense rule, which forgives debt incurred from attending for-profit schools that mislead or take advantage of students through unethical methods, and to allow the discharge, or forgiveness, of private loans. For up to five years, Biden’s plan would also offer $10,000 in debt relief for every year of national or community service.

A big focus on public-service relief is also found in Buttigieg’s plan. The former mayor of South Bend, Ind., plans to tackle the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, canceling debt incrementally based on employees’ years of service and completely forgiving it after 10 years. Student borrowers would also be automatically enrolled in an income-driven repayment plan if they struggle to repay, and their debt would be automatically eliminated after 20 years. Under the plan, low-income borrowers who have defaulted on student loans could expect wage garnishments and similar forms of collection to end. Buttigieg also follows the Obama administration in planning to expunge the debts of borrowers in for-profit programs.

The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is also one of many targets for Klobuchar,who plans to expand it to borrowers who work in “in-demand” occupations. Under her plan, undergraduate loans would be forgiven after 10 years of payments through an income-driven plan, half the time of Biden’s and Buttigieg’s plans. She would also allow both federal and private student loans to be refinanced at lower rates and would require institutions to notify student borrowers of their loan responsibilities.

Sanders, the junior United States senator from Vermont, is the only candidate on this list who has advocated for canceling all $1.6 trillion in student-loan debt. In Sanders’s College for All Act, interest rates on undergraduate loans would be restricted from rising above 1.88 percent.

Steyer’s plan centers on forgiving some types of student-loan debt and shifting how it is refinanced, reforming the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, and holding predatory loan servicers accountable. The specifics of his plan were unavailable, as the campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Besides Sanders, Warren, the senior United States senator from Massachusetts, is the only candidate who plans to cancel loans outright, up to $50,000 in federal and private student-loan debt for those who live in households with an annual income below $100,000. She also proposes a lesser debt-cancellation plan for those with a household income of $100,000 to $250,000.

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