From loan cancellation to Pell Grant expansion: Democratic candidates’ ideas for higher education


Daily file photo by Alan Perez

Joe Biden speaks at the Kellogg Global Hub in 2018. The presidential candidate has expressed support for free college.

Gabby Birenbaum, Campus Editor

Over the past two years, federal policy concerning higher education has largely focused on free speech and sexual assault. President Donald Trump made headlines in April by signing an executive order threatening to revoke funding for public universities that do not promote “free inquiry,” while Education Secretary Betsy DeVos proposed changes to Title IX guidelines that would bestow more rights upon those accused of sexual assault and minimize the responsibility of a University to investigate a claim.

As new candidates seemingly jump into the Democratic 2020 pool every day, the conversation on the left around higher education looks very different, with college affordability and the student loan debt crisis defining the playing field. From Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) call for free college to Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s (D-Mass.) game-changing unveiling of her student loan cancellation policy, Democratic candidates’ proposals range from ambitiously progressive to non-existent.

Below, we outline the higher education policies and stances of the six candidates who have consistently polled above 2 percent, including their potential effects on Northwestern students.

Joe Biden

The former vice president is unique in that he revealed his higher education proposals on Northwestern’s campus, in a March 2018 speech at the Kellogg Global Hub. While speaking, he faulted states for cutting funding for higher education, from jobs training programs to four-year colleges — a national trend since the Great Recession. He also pledged his support for free two-year and four-year college.

“Let me talk about education for a minute,” he said last March, according to a transcript from Biden Forum. “If we started a system today, does anyone think we should stop at 12 years? We need free community college for everyone.”

A Biden presidency could affect Northwestern by returning Title IX guidelines to Obama-era standards, which he was instrumental in creating. Biden spearheaded the administration’s crackdown on colleges’ handling of sexual assault cases by announcing the famous ‘Dear Colleague’ letter, circulated through the Department of Education. The piece laid out higher standards for universities, including lowering the burden of proof for victims, creating the role of Title IX coordinators and ending cross-examinations of accusers. DeVos revoked that letter, leading to lower degrees of liability for schools.

Biden has long been vocal about campus sexual assault and harassment, discussing it everywhere from the Democratic National Convention to the Oscars, though some feel his record on women has been undermined by recent allegations of inappropriate touching and his handling of the Anita Hill testimony during Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court.

Bernie Sanders

Sanders started a national conversation during his 2016 run about universal free college — removing the cost of tuition at public colleges — through his College for All Act. Years later, he’s still touting the bill.

While Northwestern would not be affected, parts of the act would affect private schools. Sanders proposes reducing student loan interest rates by approximately half and allowing for refinancing. He also believes students should not have to reapply for financial aid on a yearly basis and wants to open up federal work-study to more students through increased funding.

“We must fundamentally restructure our student loan program,” Sanders said in a February 2015 speech at Johnson State College. “It makes no sense that students and their parents are forced to pay interest rates for higher education loans that are much higher than they pay for car loans or housing mortgages.”

Regarding campus sexual assault, Sanders’ 2016 statement that law enforcement should handle claims landed poorly, with some saying he was abdicating universities’ responsibilities to the issue and revealing his lack of knowledge of the topic. He has defended free speech on college campuses, criticizing those who aimed to prevent controversial speakers from arriving on campus as betraying “a sign of intellectual weakness,” per the Huffington Post.

Kamala Harris

Harris, along with fellow candidates Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Warren, has signed on to Sen. Brian Schatz’s (D-Hawaii) x.

The bill would use federal funding to cover all the costs associated with college so that no student has to take out a loan to finance their education. It would incentivize state spending on higher education by matching it with federal spending, with the idea being that this increased spending would fund any cost students would incur outside of expected family contribution.

Harris seems to be making education policy a cornerstone of her campaign — the first policy proposal she rolled out was raising salaries for public school teachers.

She has also been vocal about stopping gun violence on campuses, pledging to take executive action, if elected, to implement comprehensive background checks and ban assault weapons if she does not receive gun control legislation within the first 100 days of her presidency.

Elizabeth Warren

Warren set the education policy agenda in April when she revealed a massive student loan forgiveness policy that would cancel up to $50,000 of student loan debt for those earning a household income of under $100,000, and forgiving portions of debt for those in households making up to $250,000. The cancellation would entirely remove 75 percent of borrowers’ debt and affect 95 percent of the population.

“The enormous student debt burden weighing down our economy isn’t the result of laziness or irresponsibility,” Warren wrote in a Medium post laying out her plan. “It’s the result of a government that has consistently put the interests of the wealthy and well-connected over the interests of working families.”

In addition, Warren plans to make tuition free at community college and public universities, and add $100 billion to the Pell Grant program. She also wants to reform college admissions by preventing public schools from considering citizenship status or criminal history in admissions and introducing an annual audit to gauge enrollment and completion rates across schools with high enrollment of students of color and low-income students.

Warren has spent a lot of time in higher education as a law professor, including a stint at Harvard. She recently criticized DeVos as the “worst Secretary of Education we’ve seen,” and pledged to make her pick a former public school teacher.

Pete Buttigieg

“Mayor Pete” stands out from the pack of Democratic candidates in his opposition to free college. Buttigieg’s philosophy treats college as an investment that the majority of Americans, who don’t hold a degree, would be subsidizing through taxes if tuition were free.

“Americans who have a college degree earn more than Americans who don’t,” he said in an April speech at Northeastern University. “As a progressive, I have a hard time getting my head around the idea of a majority who earn less because they didn’t go to college subsidizing a minority who earn more because they did.”

Buttigieg has often mentioned that his husband is still paying off his student loans but has yet to propose concrete policies on loan forgiveness. He offered vague support for expanding the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which refinances loans for those who go into public service and government. Buttigieg has said he plans to expand Pell Grants and incentivize state spending on higher education, though he has not provided specifics.

Beto O’Rourke

O’Rourke has similarly been mum on his higher education plans — the education section of his campaign website only focuses on K-12 education, with one sentence indicating his support for debt-free college. He has suggested creating loan forgiveness programs for students who move back to struggling hometowns rather than large cities, where there are more opportunities, and for teachers.

He has also expressed support for free community college.

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