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What the 2020 Democrats Say They'll Do About Your College Debt

Where the candidates stand on debt forgiveness and free or low-cost college.

by Rex Santus and Kelly Vinett
Jun 19 2019, 2:59pm

It’s become one of the main litmus tests of the 2020 presidential race: What are you going to do about student debt?

Depending on which Democratic presidential hopeful you ask, that answer can vary from big proposals like forgiving student debt to small ones like offering more-affordable community college. The reason it’s become such a hot topic: Student debt, most people agree, has escalated to a crisis-level in the United States.

Student debt in the United States has skyrocketed since 2006. Americans have racked up an astonishing $1.5 trillion in student debt. The situation has gotten so out of control that millennials aren’t buying homes, or starting small businesses. More than 2 million people have debt that exceeds $100,000, according to the Federal Reserve.

Democrats’ positions offer a sharp contrast with the president, whose budget proposal calls for ending student loan forgiveness programs for public employees, reducing the Education Department’s budget, and cutting the options for repayment plans.

Here’s what top 2020 Democrats have planned as they gear up to take on Trump.

Elizabeth Warren

  • Free undergraduate tuition: Yes
  • Debt cancellation: Yes

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts became the leading progressive on the issue after she unveiled a policy proposal to cancel up to $50,000 worth of student debt for every person with loans, effectively eliminating student debt for 75% of those who carry it. On top of that, Warren supports the elimination of undergraduate tuition at public universities.

Under Warren’s plan, every person with an annual household income under $100,000 would automatically have $50,000 of their student loan debt forgiven. For every $3 people earn beyond the $100,000 threshold, they lose $1 of the $50,000 in debt forgiven. In other words, if they make $100,003, just $49,999 of their debt will be canceled. Nobody in a household making above $250,000 a year will get student-debt relief.

It’s the most radical proposal yet from a 2020 candidate on student debt. Warren says she would fund the idea with her wealth tax proposal. Warren has plans to officially unveil legislation for her student debt plan in the coming days.

READ: Here's where the 2020 Democrats stand on:

Bernie Sanders

  • Free undergraduate tuition: Yes
  • Debt cancellation: Unclear

The longtime independent from Vermont, has long been a champion of free public college in the United States. It was one of his chief issues on the stump in 20216, when he led a surprising contest against Hillary Clinton. Sanders has, on numerous occasions, pushed legislation to make college more accessible to all Americans, such as his 2017 $47 billion plan to eliminate undergraduate tuition at public universities for families with incomes under $125,000.

In 2019, however, he has stopped short of outright embracing debt forgiveness, as Warren has, and has yet to unveil his official education policies for the 2020 campaign cycle. Sanders’ team did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

Joe Biden

  • Free undergraduate tuition: Unclear
  • Debt cancellation: Unclear

The former vice president and current 2020 frontrunner doesn’t have any official proposals for student debt or college affordability yet. But his past remarks (and actions) give some indication of his thoughts on the matter. Back in 2015, when Biden was still considering mounting a 2016 bid for the White House, he said that he supported four years of free public higher education.

“We need to commit to 16 years of free public education for all our children,” Biden told reporters. “We all know that 12 years of public education is not enough. As a nation let’s make the same commitment to a college education today that we made to a high school education 100 years ago.”

His legislative track record, however, is a bit more spotty. In 2005, Biden was a U.S. senator for Delaware, and he famously sparred with his now-2020 opponent Warren, not yet a politician but a legal scholar, over his support of a bankruptcy bill that included a provision that exempted private student loans from bankruptcy.

Biden’s campaign did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

Kamala Harris

  • Free undergraduate tuition: Unclear
  • Debt cancellation: Unclear

The junior senator from California has indicated support for “debt-free college” — which can mean anything from free tuition to simply cutting costs. She has progressive track record in the Senate. For example: she signed on as a co-sponsor to Sanders’ 2017 college affordability bill and Brian Schatz’s 2019 Debt-Free College Act.)

“We need to get rid of the for-profit colleges that are preying on students like you,” Harris said at a CNN town hall in January. “I have personally prosecuted for-profit colleges that take advantage of students like you, promising a job, promising a bright future while taking your money and not giving you anything in return.”

That’s true: Harris, as attorney general of California, led the prosecution against Corinthian Colleges in 2016 that resulted in the for-profit institution having to pay $1 billion for misleading students.

It is not clear if she supports debt forgiveness. Harris’ office did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

Pete Buttigieg

  • Free undergraduate tuition: No
  • Debt cancellation: No

Mayor Pete’s own staff responded to VICE News’ inquiry about his student debt crisis plans by repeatedly pointing out that Buttigieg stands out because he does not support free college. Buttigieg said in a statement in May, that American citizens who didn’t go to college shouldn’t have to “subsidize” the education of those who do.

“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,” he said.

He also said in May that he doesn’t support free college because that would mean that the children of billionaires would get free schooling, too.

There's a lot of steps we can take to make college much more affordable than it is today without committing the U.S. government and the U.S. taxpayer to subsidizing even the children of billionaires,” he said.

Buttigieg supports far more moderate reforms than, say, Elizabeth Warren. He wants expansions of public service loan forgiveness programs — not debt forgiveness for broader swarths of the American population.

“If we're going to move in the direction of forgiveness, to have it be tied to income and not just some kind of blanket thing that makes no distinction between folks who are going to be just fine and are on their way to being in the 1%, and people who are struggling in the middle class and almost being punished for the fact that they got an education and used it to benefit others,” he told VICE’s Allie Conti in March.

Amy Klobuchar

  • Free undergraduate tuition: No
  • Debt cancellation: No

The Minnesota senator and proud moderate has said that she does not support for free tuition at public universities.

“I wish I could staple a free college diploma under every one of your chairs. I do,” Klobuchar said at an April CNN town hall. “Don't look, it's not there. I wish I could do that but I have to be straight with you and tell you the truth.”

Klobuchar does not seem to support debt forgiveness plans like Warren’s, either. A spokesperson said that, instead, the senator supports expanding loan forgiveness for some “in-demand occupations.” Klobuchar also supports expanding Pell grants and student education tax credits.

She also supports tuition-free, two-year degrees at community colleges.

Kirsten Gillibrand

  • Free undergraduate tuition: Unclear
  • Debt cancellation: No

Gillibrand hasn’t released many specifics about her college affordability plans, but she seems supportive of the concept. Notably, she signed on as a co-sponsor for Bernie’s 2017 plan as well as Brian Schatz’s Debt-Free College Act. Separately, Gillibrand wrote a bill 6 years ago that sought to allow students to refinance their student debt to lower rates.

Her biggest idea is her so-called National Public Service Plan, a markedly less ambitious proposal than her most progressive opponents’ that would offer two years of tuition-free education to young people at community college or public universities.

Jay Inslee

  • Free undergraduate tuition: No
  • Debt cancelation: Unclear

Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington who is running as the climate change candidate, did not directly respond to VICE News’ inquiry about whether he supports Warren’s plan for debt forgiveness. Instead, a spokesperson highlighted some of the governor’s own actions, such as protections he signed into law for students at for-profit schools. Inslee does not seem to support universal tuition-free public college. His campaign pointed to a Washington program that provided free or reduced tuition to lower- and middle-class students at public universities. His campaign pointed to this plan as a model for the entire nation.

Cory Booker

  • Free undergraduate tuition: Unclear
  • Debt cancellation: Unclear

The New Jersey Senator has yet to announce a clear stance on student debt forgiveness policies as a piece of campaign policy. However, he reintroduced the Debt-Free College Act in March with Sen. Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, along with other Democratic members.

Booker’s campaign did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

Beto O’Rourke

  • Free undergraduate tuition: No
  • Debt cancellation: Unclear

According to Time, the former Texas Representative and fourth generation El Pasoan supports free community college and debt-free college at four-year colleges and universities for students from low-income backgrounds.

In one March 2018 tweet, he said, "Our country now has more student loan debt than credit card debt. We should allow Texans who commit to working in in-demand fields and in underserved communities the chance to graduate debt free.”

Like a few other candidates, O’Rourke also advocates for eliminating debt for students who go into public services. It’s unclear which career paths would be included in O’Rourke’s plan that doesn’t quite check out.

“Let’s graduate young women and men from high school who are career ready as well as college ready, able to pursue debt-free higher education or a job that provides purpose and a real paycheck,” is the only instance when college debt is addressed, though not completely resolved nor specified, on his campaign website.

O’Rourke’s campaign didn’t respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

Cover: Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) waves to the audience during the Black Economic Alliance Forum on June 15, 2019 in Charleston, South Carolina. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)