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Debt-free college: Where the 2020 presidential candidates stand

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Beto O'Rourke, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.)
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Beto O'Rourke, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Sen. Cory Booker. Photo: Getty Images.

A clear divide exists among 2020 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 it is responsible for much of millennials and Generation X's anguish.

In Congress

  • Congressional committees have launched hearings to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, which aim to promote 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 eliminate debt 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 with the federal government. In June, he revealed plans to eliminate all $1.6 trillion of student debt and pay for it by raising taxes on Wall Street.
  • Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro released a plan to end tuition at public colleges and universities, community colleges and technical and vocational programs. It would be paid for by sharing "the financing of tuition costs with state governments and provide incentives to reduce the cost of college programs." Castro also wants to defer loan repayments until graduates are earning above 2.5 times the federal poverty level, or $64,375 for a 4-person household.
  • 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.
  • Author Marianne Williamson supports universal preschool and free college.
  • Former Vice President Joe Biden proposed a $750 billion free tuition for community and technical college only — with the federal government picking up 75% of the cost and allowing states to cover the rest.

Debt-free

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

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) proposed a massive plan for $640 billion in public and private student loan debt cancellation, funded using proceeds from her wealth tax. The plan also includes universal free public college.
  • Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) believes universal pre-K and college should be a "fundamental right" and should 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, as well.
  • Former Texas Rep. 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 the Student Loan Affordability Act until 2015.
  • Former tech executive Andrew Yang supports debt forgiveness plans and loan repayment, 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 has called for free 2-year community college. She offered the idea to refinance loans and expand Pell grants.
  • Former Maryland Rep. John Delaney has called for reforming bankruptcy laws so student loan debt can be discharged like all other debt, as well as refinancing.

Mixed statements

  • South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg doesn't support making college free. He instead called for states to cover a higher portion of the cost than students. Buttigieg is also looking to foster more generous grants and accessible programs for loan forgiveness. He mentioned he is looking at interest rates to refinance student loans, but has not specified a percentage.

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