Presidential Candidate Positions on College Financial Aid

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Mark Kantrowitz

By Mark Kantrowitz

July 29, 2019

A score of Democratic and Republican candidates for U.S. President have taken positions concerning college affordability and student loans. The details of their proposals may help differentiate among the candidates.

The major issues include student loan forgiveness, bankruptcy discharge of student loans, free public college tuition/debt-free public college, increasing the Federal Pell Grant, increasing State support of postsecondary education, student loan interest rates, public service loan forgiveness, income-driven repayment plans, FAFSA simplification and for-profit colleges.

This article will be updated as more information becomes available from the various campaigns. 

Student Loan Forgiveness

The growth in outstanding student loan debt, now at $1.6 trillion, has spurred several candidates to introduce student loan forgiveness proposals.

Bernie Sanders has proposed forgiving all student loan debt, tax-free, with no limitations. He believes that a college education is a human right and that students should not need to go into debt to exercise this right. He would fund the cost of the forgiveness through a tax on stock market transactions. This would cancel $1.6 trillion in student loan debt for 45 million Americans.

Wayne Messam has proposed forgiving all student loans. He would fund the cost of the forgiveness by repealing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017.

Elizabeth Warren has proposed forgiving up to $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower, tax-free, phasing out the amount of forgiveness at $100,000 to $250,000 in income. This would cancel an estimated $640 billion in student loan debt for 42 million Americans. She would fund the cost of the forgiveness with a 2% Ultra-Millionaire Tax on families with $50 million or more in wealth.

Several candidates have proposed forgiving the student loan debt of just teachers, including Cory Booker, Jay Inslee, Beto O’Rourke (public school teachers), and Eric Swalwell.

Other candidates have more complicated proposals for student loan forgiveness:

  • Julian Castro proposes forgiving student loans if the borrower has used means-tested federal benefits for 3 of 5 consecutive years.
  • Kamala Harris has proposed forgiving up to $20,000 in student loans for Federal Pell Grant recipients who start a new business in a disadvantaged community. She also proposes providing participants with a 3-year interest-free entrepreneurship deferment for their remaining student loan debt, similar to a 2016 proposal from Hillary Clinton.
  • Michael Bennet proposes forgiving $10,000 a year for four years for “public servants and those who work in high-need professional in underserved communities” as well as capping student loan payments at 8% of income with forgiveness after 20 years of on-time payments

Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar are opposed to student loan forgiveness.

Bankruptcy Discharge of Student Loans

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, John Delaney, Julian Castro and Michael Bennet support allowing student loans to be discharged in bankruptcy. Joe Biden has previously opposed bankruptcy discharge for student loans, but now supports bankruptcy discharge of private student loans.

Public Service Loan Forgiveness

Most of the candidates, including Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Michael Bloomberg, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, would make Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) available to more borrowers and simplify it to reduce the bureaucracy.

In particular, Michael Bennet, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan, Bernie Sanders, Eric Swalwell and Elizabeth Warren would allow partial loan forgiveness. Marianne Williamson would cut the repayment term from 10 years (120 payments) to 5 years (60 payments).

Joe Biden has proposed forgiving $10,000 per year for five years. 

Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren support the What You Can Do For Your Country Act of 2019, which would overhaul the public service loan forgiveness program. 

Donald Trump has proposed repealing Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

Free Public College

Some proponents of free public college are proposing free tuition and required fees, while others are proposing debt-free public college. Some candidates use the terms interchangeably. Neither type of proposal covers all college costs at public colleges and universities. For example, textbooks, transportation, room and board would remain the responsibility of the student.

Support for free public college also differs according to whether the candidate supports just free tuition at community colleges or also at public 4-year colleges, and whether free tuition at public 4-year colleges is limited to low- and middle-income students.

Bernie Sanders introduced the College for All Act of 2017, which would have eliminated tuition and required fees at community colleges for all students and tuition and required fees for low and middle-income students (AGI less than $125,000) and all Federal Pell Grant recipients at public 4-year colleges. It would implement a similar program at tribal colleges and universities.

The legislation would be funded through a federal-state partnership, with a 2/3 federal share. The legislation would provide $41 billion in federal funding the first year. States would also be required to cover all financial need of Federal Pell Grant recipients beyond the amount covered by the Federal Pell Grant.

The College for All Act was introduced by Bernie Sanders and cosponsored by Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Tulsi Gabbard and Eric Swalwell say that they also support the College for All Act.

The Debt-Free College Act of 2019, which covers the unmet need of all eligible students through a federal/state partnership, was cosponsored by Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Elizabeth Warren. Bernie Sanders says that he supports the legislation.

Other candidates have voiced support for some form of free public college, including Michael Bloomberg, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Jay Inslee, Michael Bennet and Tim Ryan. All support free tuition at community colleges, but most would limit free 4-year public college based on family income. For example, Pete Buttigieg has proposed free 4-year public college for students from families with income of up to $100,000 and on a sliding scale for families with income of $100,000 to $150,000. In some cases it is unclear whether the candidate is referring to free tuition or debt-free public 4-year colleges. 

John Delaney, Amy Klobuchar, Seth Moulton and Beto O’Rourke support free community college tuition but not free 4-year public college.

Joe Biden has said that he supports free tuition at community colleges “without debt”, including part-time and undocumented students, without age restrictions. He would fund it through a federal/state partnership, with the federal government providing 75% of the cost. He subsequently said that he supports free tuition at 4-year public colleges for students from families with annual income less than $125,000.

Marianne Williamson supports free tuition for qualified students, but has not said what she means by “qualified students.”

Increasing the Federal Pell Grant

Several candidates have expressed support for increasing funding for the Federal Pell Grant, including Michael Bennet, Joe Biden, Pete Buttigieg, Julian Castro, John Delaney, Amy Klobuchar, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

A few candidates have provided specifics. Joe Biden would double the maximum Pell Grant, to approximately $12,000, and index the maximum grant to inflation. He would make undocumented students eligible for the Pell Grant. Michael Bloomberg would also double the maximum Pell Grant, to $12,690. Julian Castro would increase the maximum Pell Grant to $10,000. Amy Klobuchar has said that she would double the Pell Grant and expand eligibility up to $100,000 in income, but it is unclear whether she meant doubling the maximum Pell Grant (currently $6,195) or doubling the funding for the Pell Grant program. Elizabeth Warren supports increasing Pell Grant funding by $100 billion over 10 years, which would increase the current Pell Grant funding by about a third.  Michael Bennet wants to achieve debt-free 4-year public college for families up to 300% of the poverty line by increasing Pell Grant funding.

The Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2017 (P.L. 115-31), which restored year-round Pell grants starting in the summer of 2018, was signed into law by Donald Trump on May 5, 2017.

Reducing Student Loan Interest Rates

Several candidates have expressed support for reducing the interest rates on new federal student loans and/or allowing borrowers to refinance their existing federal student loans at a lower interest rate.

These candidates include Cory Booker (refi), Pete Buttigieg (refi), John Delaney (new), Tulsi Gabbard (new, refi), Kirsten Gillibrand (refi), Kamala Harris (refi), John Hickenlooper (new), Amy Klobuchar (refi), Beto O’Rourke (new, refi), Bernie Sanders (new, refi), Eric Swalwell (new, refi), Elizabeth Warren (refi), Bill Weld (refi), and Marianne Williamson (new).

Most of the proposals lack detail. However, a few candidates have provided specifics. Tulsi Gabbard would cut new interest rates in half. Bernie Sanders would cut new interest rates to pre-2006 rates (1.88%). Eric Swalwell would cut new interest rates to zero. Kirsten Gillibrand would allow borrowers to refinance their student loans to 4%, Amy Klobuchar to 3% and Bernie Sanders to 2.32%.

Income-Driven Repayment Plans

Several candidates have various proposals for changing income-driven repayment.

  • Michael Bennet would base income-driven repayment on 8% of income with forgiveness after 20 years. He probably means 8% of discretionary income, since he characterizes it as a 20% cut in monthly loan payments. 
  • Joe Biden would have no payments due and no interest on federal student loans when the borrower’s income is less than $25,000 and base the monthly payment on 5% of discretionary income (cutting the monthly payments in half), with tax-free forgiveness of the remaining debt after 20 years worth of payments. 
  • Michael Bloomberg would also base the monthly payments on 5% of discretionary income and forgive the remaining debt of borrowers in income-driven repayment after 20 years, with up to $57,000 of the forgiveness tax-free. He would also automatically enroll borrowers in income-driven repayment plans and provide for payroll withholding of the monthly loan payments. 
  • Julian Castro has a proposal for a new version of income-driven repayment. His proposal would set student loan payments at zero with no interest for up to three years until their income exceeds 250% of the poverty line. After three years, it would waive half of unpaid interest. After income exceeds 250% of the poverty line, the monthly payment would be based on 10% of discretionary income, which would be defined as the amount by which adjusted gross income (AGI) exceeds 250% of the poverty line. The remaining debt would be forgiven, tax-free, after 240 payments (20 years). There would also be a lifetime interest cap of 50% of the amount borrowed.
  • Kirsten Gillibrand proposes to auto-enroll borrowers in income-driven repayment.
  • Donald Trump proposes to phase out the existing income-driven repayment plans, replacing them with a new plan where payments are based on 12.5% of discretionary income for 15 years (undergraduate student borrowers) or 30 years (graduate student borrowers). The payments would not be capped at the standard repayment amount. The payments would be based on the combined income of the borrower and spouse even if the borrower files a separate return.
  • Andrew Yang has proposed forgiving the remaining debt of borrowers who pay 10% of their income for 10 years.

For-Profit Colleges

Julian Castro and Elizabeth Warren would make for-profit colleges ineligible for federal student aid. Kamala Harris, who has sued for-profit colleges as the California attorney general, would crack down on for-profit colleges and create more protections for students. Donald Trump has repealed the Gainful Employment regulations, which affected for-profit colleges.

Michael Bennet would deny Pell Grants, student loans and other federal support to college programs or entire colleges based on outcome data such as excessive default rates and debt-to-income ratios.

Joe Biden would require for-profit colleges to “first prove their value to the U.S. Department of Education before gaining eligibility for federal aid” but hasn’t specified what this means. Probably it would involve some form of debt-to-income ratio. He would also count military student aid as part of the 90/10 rule and restore the borrower defense to repayment. 

Michael Bloomberg would restore the gainful employment rules. 

Miscellaneous Proposals

There are several additional proposals that are supported by a smaller number of candidates.

  • Cory Booker, Julian Castro and Bernie Sanders support FAFSA Simplification.
  • Cory Booker’s baby bonds proposal would provide each newborn child with a savings account seeded with $1,000. Low-income children would receive up to an additional $2,000 a year for each year through age 18. After reaching age 18, the beneficiary would be able to use the money to pay for education, home ownership and retirement.
  • Eric Swalwell has proposed excluding employer student loan repayment assistance from income.
  • Julian Castro and Jay Inslee have proposed making DACA students (Dreamers) eligible for federal student aid. Jay Inslee has also proposed making DACA students eligible for in-state tuition.
  • Michael Bloomberg would make incarcerated students and DACA students eligible for the Pell Grant

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