2020 Candidates on Education Finance Policy

Update 351 — Class of 2020 Pres. Candidates:
Making the Grade on Education Finance Policy

Over the course of the last decade, a consensus has emerged among progressive policy makers that something serious must be done to address the costs of higher education, tuition and debt.  2020 candidates are weighing in, setting priorities and offering proposals.

With graduation day around the corner, many students face decades of expensive loan payments, while others forewent college altogether due to prohibitive costs.  What is to be done?

Good weekends, all…




Financing higher education is quickly becoming a central theme of the 2020 campaign trail.  Numerous Democratic presidential candidates have proposed de novo measures to tackle the $1.5 trillion student debt crisis and the continuing access and affordability issues facing American college students.  

Below, we examine recently-introduced candidate proposals that range from incremental reforms to existing federal programs, to revolutionary proposals that would provide “college for all.” We assess merits and potential flaws with an eye to 2020 and beyond.

The $1.5 Trillion Question

Almost every 2020 Democratic candidate has a plan to address the burgeoning student debt crisis, with a particular focus on seeking to redress what several of them refer to as a generational injustice.

Tuition-free college: This approach aims to make two and four-year public colleges free to attend. It is proactive, aimed at preventing debt from occurring in the first place.

  • The College for All Act, introduced last Congress by Sen. Sanders and cosponsored by fellow candidates Sens. Gillibrand, Harris, and Warren, would eliminate undergraduate tuition at public institutions for those making $125,000 or less a year. The necessary $47 billion in funding would come from a 0.5 percent fee levied on stock trades (50 cents for every $100 worth of stock), a 0.1 percent fee on bonds, and a 0.005 percent fee on derivatives.
  • Sen. Warren’s campaign plan makes public and community colleges tuition-free for all and notably cancels $640 billion of outstanding student loan debt for Americans earning up to $250,000. The amount of debt cancelled scales based on income. She proposes to pay for it with a two percent wealth tax on Americans with net worths over $50 million, with an additional one percent levy on billionaires.
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden called for tuition-free four-year public college back in 2015 and also worked on President Obama’s ‘America’s College Promise’ program to provide for tuition-free community college. He has not yet released an official plan for his 2020 campaign.

Debt-free college: These proposals aim to prevent, minimize, or eliminate debt, rather than reduce the cost of college tuition. Tuition makes up just 20 to 40 percent of the total cost of attending college; debt-free college as an idea takes that cost into account and ensures that no student has to borrow for any expense, tuition or otherwise.

  • The Debt-Free College Act of 2018, introduced by Sen. Schatz, is cosponsored by presidential hopefuls, Sens. Booker, Gillibrand, Harris, and Warren. The program establishes a matching grant to states helping students pay for the full cost of attendance without taking out loans. Sen. Harris is also a proponent of cracking down on predatory, for-profit colleges that trap students in cycles of debt.
  • The American Opportunity Accounts Act, also known as the Baby Bonds Act, was introduced by Sen. Booker in 2018. The legislation would create a savings account for every American child when they are born that would be worth tens of thousands of dollars by the time the child is 18. These savings can be used to pay for college expenses debt-free.  

More incremental proposals include:

  • Pell grant expansion
  • Student loan refinancing
  • Reduced interest rates on loans
  • Tax credits and tax incentives for employers to contribute to their employees’ student loan debt

Proposals: Making the Grade?

Although most Americans agree that something must be done about the cost of college, each of the aforementioned proposals has faced some public critique.

  • Where does the money come from?: Many people’s knee-jerk response to investments made in higher education revolve around cost. Sen. Sanders’ plan is estimated to cost the federal government $47 billion, Sen. Schatz’s will cost $80 to 95 billion, and Sen. Warren’s will cost $125 billion — annually. Each proposal calls for raising taxes or eliminating tax loopholes. Getting states on board will be a challenge, as many of the proposals require state governments to maintain or increase funding for public colleges in order to qualify for federal funds. Plus, as enrollment increases (as it would if access improves), universities’ costs increase.
  • Regressive relief: Those with a bachelor’s degree earn, on average, 80 percent more per year than people with just a high school diploma. Because they provide relief to those already “privileged” to have a college degree, student loan forgiveness proposals could be perceived as unfair.  Most tuition-free and debt-free college plans seek to address this issue, making community college free and technical degree programs more accessible.
  • Universality vs. means-testing: During the 2016 Democratic Primary, Hillary Clinton famously criticised Sen. Sanders proposal for universal free college by saying, “I am not in favor of making college free for Donald Trump’s kids.” Means testing would address some of the regressivity critiques, but means-tested government programs typically achieve less public buy-in than universal ones.
  • Lucky for some: Those who have recently paid-off hefty student loan obligations have also criticized the lack of retroactive policy put forward in debt forgiveness plans. There is the option to refund past student debt payments for borrowers who already repaid their loans, which could work in tandem with Sen. Warren’s plan to base benefits on students’ current balance.

The Issue of a Generation

A national poll done in 2016 found that millennials, the most indebted generation to-date, ranked college affordability and student debt as their second most important voting issue, right after the economy. For many young people, financing their higher education has prevented them from fully participating in the economy, specifically delaying homeownership, marriage, and more.

Millennials and newly-minted Gen Z’s will be a huge part of the voting bloc in 2020, partially explaining why presidential hopefuls have chosen to focus on financing higher education as part of their main policy platforms. Candidates are clearly taking note of how crucial it will be to appeal to these age groups if they are going to win the primary and eventually, the general election.

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