Debt-free college: Where the 2020 presidential candidates stand

A clear divide exists among 2020 presidential Democrats who are rolling out plans to tackle the student debt crisis, whether tuition-free or debt-free policies are the way to win voter support.

By the numbers: Student debt in the United States has reached $1.5 trillion, and is responsible for much of millennials and generation Z’s anguish.

In Congress

  • Congressional committees have launched hearings to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which looks to discuss more affordability in college costs, student loan programs and more. Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) and Rep. Mark Pocan (D-Wisc.) reintroduced legislation to help students become debt free within 5 years of graduating.

Tuition free

These programs provide students 2 years of free tuition at participating state community colleges, associate-degree programs and vocational schools. The majority fall into the category of “last dollar” scholarships, indicating the program pays the difference in tuition after financial aid and grants have kicked in, per CNBC.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is still running on his 2016 campaign promise to make college tuition free and debt free. In 2016, Sanders introduced a bill called the “College for All Act,” making public college tuition-free to students through a partnership between the federal government.
  • Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro supports tuition-free college.
  • Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) wants to eliminate tuition and fees at 4-year public colleges and universities. She also supports free community college tuition for everyone.
  • New-age spiritual guru Marianne Williamson supports universal pre-school and free college.

Debt free

This idea aims to cover the costs associated with attending public college without requiring students to take out loans, by establishing federal matches for state spending on higher education and using those funds to fill unmet need for people pursuing degrees

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) is running her campaign on students being debt free by using proceeds from her wealth tax. Warren is a co-sponsor for the Schatz-Pocan bill and the Sanders bill. She has sponsored and co-sponsored several others including one in 2014 that allowed federal student loan borrowers to refinance their debt at a lower interest rate.
  • Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.): She believes universal pre-K and college should be a “fundamental right,” to be debt-free, The Atlantic reports. She is a co-sponsor for the Schatz-Pocan bill and the Sanders bill.
  • Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.): Introduced a bill in 2018 for baby bonds, which attempted to close the racial-wealth gap in education. Booker is a co-sponsor for the Schatz-Pocan bill.
  • Former Texas representative Beto O’Rourke has supported debt-free ideals. In 2018, he tweeted: “We should allow Texans who commit to working in in-demand fields and in underserved communities the chance to graduate debt free.” O`Rourke co-sponsored Student Loan Affordability Act until 2015.
  • Former tech executive Andrew Yang: Debt forgiveness plans and loan repayment plans, according to his campaign website.

Refinance student loans

  • Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) rejected the idea of tuition-free college at a CNN town hall, but called for has called for free 2-year community college degrees. She offered up the idea to refinance loans and expand Pell grants.
  • Former representative John Delaney has called for reforming bankruptcy laws so student loan debt can be discharged like all other debts as well as refinancing.

Mixed statements

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is a co-sponsor for the Schatz-Pocan bill and the Sanders bill. In February, she tweeted she’d “allow all students to refinance their loans at 4%” if she were elected president.

Go deeper: Everything you need to know about the 2020 presidential candidates

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