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2020 US election: what have Democratic candidates said about higher education?

This essential guide breaks down what each Democratic candidate has pledged for higher education ahead of the 2020 US Presidential election

Austin Ostro's avatar

Austin Ostro

May 29 2019
2020 US election, democrats, democratic party, candidates


Higher education has emerged as a key policy area for the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates in the US. For some progressives, support for tuition-free public college and student debt forgiveness have become key litmus tests for candidates. Others in the party are not as willing to support the significant public investment that would be necessary to achieve such goals. Added to this is the Trump administration’s ongoing efforts to amend federal guidance on campus responses to instances of sexual violence.

With record turnout of college students in the 2018 midterms, and increased political engagement apparent on campuses around the country, it is likely that issues relating to higher education policy will receive more attention this cycle than ever before. As students try to navigate one of the largest presidential fields in US history, let’s explore some of what the Democratic candidates are saying about higher education:

Joe Biden

In 2015, while serving as vice-president, Biden publicly committed to tuition-free public college. 

Now, while he has publicly stated that he supports four years of tuition-free public college, so far in his 2020 campaign Biden has only committed to a $6 billion (£4.7 billion) plan to make two years of community college tuition-free.

Biden has also commented on the impact of declining state investment in public higher education. Public colleges are primarily funded by state tax support and student tuition and fees. When state support declines, the difference must be made up with increased tuition, or a cut to campus academic programmes and student services. Over the past 10 years, students and families have gone from paying for about one-third of the operating costs of public colleges nationally, to one-half, as a direct consequence of declining state support. Biden has criticised Republican governors and state legislators for this declining state support.

As vice president, Biden was the leader of the Obama administration’s efforts to strengthen protections for survivors of sexual assault on college campuses. This federal guidance is currently being rolled back by the Trump administration. As a result, Biden has been an outspoken critic of any effort to weaken existing guidance, and has spoken around the country of the need to change campus culture on sexual assault.

Bernie Sanders

Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign played a key role in bringing the cost of higher education into the policy foreground. His 2020 platform continues his 2016 call for a guarantee of four years of tuition-free public college for all students.  Sanders proposes to cover the estimated $47 billion annual cost of administering such a programme with a so-called “Robin Hood Tax” on Wall Street speculation on stocks and shares. 

Sanders has also proposed cutting interest rates on all student loans in half, and would allow all current borrowers to refinance at the new reduced interest rate. To further offset the cost of an undergraduate education, he has proposed expanding the Pell Grant and federal Work Study programmes. Also of interest to students, Sanders has proposed eliminating the requirement to submit a new Federal Student Aid form (FAFSA) each year. Students would be able to submit one form at the beginning of college, and would only need to resubmit if their financial circumstances changed.

Increasingly, public colleges are becoming reliant on professors on short-term contracts and graduate students to teach undergraduate courses and Sanders’ proposed “College For All” Act would require 75 per cent of teaching at public colleges and universities to be led by tenured or tenure-track faculty members.

While Sanders’ “College for All” Act called only for tuition-free public college for students coming from families with less than $125,000 in annual income, similar to New York State’s Excelsior Scholarship, lately Sanders has been advocating for tuition-free college for all.

As is the case with most of the Democratic field, Sanders supports the federal DREAM Act, which would open federal financial aid programmes up to certain undocumented students.

Elizabeth Warren 

Warren has put forward the most expensive and transformational plan on higher education of the 2020 field. Under Warren’s plan, the United States would forgive up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt for all Americans with household incomes under $100,000. A smaller amount of debt forgiveness would be offered to those with incomes between $100,000 and $250,000. An estimated 42 million Americans would see their student debt eliminated as a result of the plan. One-time debt cancellation associated with the plan would cost an estimated $640 billion.

Warren has also called for four years of tuition-free public college regardless of family income. Warren further supports investing an added $100 billion into the Pell Grant programme, and creating a new $50 billion fund aimed at supporting historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Warren’s debt-free college plan also includes increased support for the non-tuition associated costs of higher education, including room, board and textbooks.

Overall, Warren’s higher education plans would cost $1.25 trillion over 10 years. Warren has proposed several new taxes on the ultra-wealthy to cover the cost.

Warren, as well as others in the Democratic race, has raised concerns over for-profit colleges. For-profit colleges account for a disproportionate share of student loan defaults, and questions have been raised over the quality of education received by students at many such institutions. Warren proposes banning for-profit colleges from access to any federal funds, including student loans and Pell Grants.

Kamala Harris

Harris has publicly expressed support for debt-free college, and co-sponsored the Debt Free College Act of 2018. This proposal, while not making all public colleges tuition-free, would increase support for the associated costs of higher education for low-income students.

The Debt Free College Act would also increase public investment in higher education by offering dollar-for-dollar matching of state spending on public higher education. This would serve to address not just the issue of accessibility of public higher education institutions, but the quality of their academic programmes and student support services.

Earlier this year, Harris unveiled a 10-year, $315 billion plan to raise teacher pay around the nation. Harris has said that part of this funding will be earmarked to raise faculty salaries at HBCUs and minority-serving institutions.

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Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg drew the ire of some progressives back in April when he refused to voice support for tuition-free public college. Instead, Buttigieg argued that increased investment ought to be made in the Pell Grant programme, which serves low-income students.

In May 2019, Buttigeg called for tuition-free college for low-income students through a federal-state partnership, the details of which have not yet been released. 

Buttigieg, like other members of the Democratic field, has called for greater scrutiny of for-profit colleges. He has also voiced support for expanding the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which offers debt forgiveness to individuals who enter certain service professions.

Cory Booker

Booker, like several of his competitors, is a co-sponsor of the Debt Free College Act. He has also spoken about the importance of investment in community colleges and was a sponsor of the America’s College Promise Act, which would make two years of community college tuition-free nationwide.

Booker’s marquee higher education proposal however, is to create a savings account for every American at birth. These accounts would have up to $2,000 deposited in them per year, while accruing interest. At 18, the child could use the accumulated funding to pay for their college education. Booker’s “baby bonds” proposal is being piloted at a micro-level in several states, with some promising initial results.

Beto O’Rourke

O’Rourke has stated that he does not support tuition-free four-year public college. O’Rourke has signalled support for tuition-free community college, and increased investment to make college debt-free. O’Rourke, while serving in the House, chose not to co-sponsor the Debt Free College Act.

Kirsten Gillibrand

Gillibrand has been an outspoken advocate for eliminating sexual and interpersonal violence on campuses, and maintaining and strengthening Title IX protections. She has been highly critical of the Department of Education’s approach to regulating campus judicial proceedings.

Gillibrand is a Senate sponsor of the Debt Free College Act, and has proposed making up to $10,000 in college tuition payments tax-deductible for families. She supports incentivising public service through growing associated loan forgiveness and tuition assistance programs. Gillibrand has also voiced support for making public colleges and universities tuition-free for those coming from families with less than $125,000 in annual income.

Andrew Yang

Yang’s higher education platform focuses on institutional transparency and maximising operational efficiencies at public colleges and universities.

Yang has proposed cutting administrative staff to reduce costs. His platform also calls for greater institutional transparency on outcomes for graduates, particularly in regards to employment, salary, and debt. Yang has also proposed eliminating the tax-exempt status of universities with substantial endowments.

Julian Castro 

Castro does not support tuition-free four-year college. He has voiced support for free community college tuition, and for expanding federal financial aid programmes for lower socio-economic students.

Castro has called for boosting the maximum Pell Grant from approximately $6,000 to $10,000. This would help cover the direct and associated costs of higher education for low-income students.

Castro has further proposed capping loan repayment at 10 per cent of annual income, with full loan forgiveness for any remaining balance after 20 years of repayment. No payment would be due from any borrower if their income falls below 250 per cent of the poverty line.

Castro has also been vocal in his support for expanding access to federal financial aid programmes such as Pell Grants and Work Study to students enrolled in the DACA program.

Amy Klobuchar

Klobuchar has said that tuition-free four year college is not practical. She supports two years of tuition-free community college, and the expansion of federal financial aid programs.


Most of the conversation in the Democratic field thus far as it relates to higher education has centred on tuition and debt, which are of course key issues for students and their families around the nation.

The Democratic field broadly fits into three policy categories on tuition and debt. There are the candidates, namely Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, who support four years of tuition-free public college.

Then there are the candidates, such as Kamala Harris, Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand, who support “debt-free college”, which means significantly expanding financial aid programmes for low-income students, while charging tuition to students from higher-income families.

The third category, which includes Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar, support two years of tuition-free community college but not four years of tuition-free or debt-free college.

Even the less transformational positions espoused by this latter group of candidates represents a more progressive position than was considered mainstream in the 2008 or 2012 cycles. As Democratic primary voters choose their nominee to face President Trump next November, they will be confronted with diverse policy prescriptions on higher education. What they choose will say much about the future paradigm of the higher education debate in the United States.

Read more: Best universities in the United States


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