2020 Democrats jockey over surging college costs

2020 Democrats jockey over surging college costs
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The skyrocketing cost of a college education has become a hot issue in the 2020 Democratic primary, as most candidates look to provide some type of relief to students saddled with debt.

Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersShame on Biden for his Atlanta remarks — but are we surprised? Overnight Health Care — Biden faces pressure from Democrats on COVID-19 Sanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown MORE’s (I-Vt.) was the first Democrat to put the issue front and center in a presidential primary, proposing in his failed 2016 run to make tuition free for public colleges, a plan that forced Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Democrats see victory in a voting rights defeat Left laughs off floated changes to 2024 ticket A year into his presidency, Biden is polling at an all-time low MORE to come up with her own initiative.

The cost of college came into focus again this month after billionaire Robert F. Smith stunned the graduating class of Morehouse College by offering to pay off all their debt, at a time when the student loans across the country have climbed to $1.5 trillion.


In 2020, almost every candidate has a proposal to make at least some part of public college education free or to reduce the weight of student debt, amid a new push in Congress by some Democrats to tackle the issue through legislation.

But the plans have differences, ranging from two years of free community college floated by more moderate candidates such as former Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenMadame Tussauds unveils new Biden and Harris figures US raises concerns about Russian troop movements to Belarus Putin tests a model for invading Ukraine, outwitting Biden's diplomats MORE, to more ambitious plans to make the entire public university experience free and eliminate all student debt, as proposed by Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenWarren dodges on whether Sinema, Manchin should be challenged in primaries Former aide says she felt 'abandoned' by Democrats who advanced Garcetti nomination as ambassador to India The Memo: 2024 chatter reveals Democratic nervousness MORE (D-Mass.).

The proposals, which can cost up to over a trillion dollars, are already being assailed by Republicans as socialist policies that will balloon the fiscal deficit.

Here’s where 2020 Democrats stand on free tuition and student debt.

Free community college

First proposed by then President Obama in 2015, the idea of providing every American with two free years of community college has become the baseline of a higher-education reform policy in 2019.

Several of the 2020 candidates seen as more moderate have adopted this as their main position on higher education.

Biden, the current front-runner in polls, floated two years of free community college during a campaign stop in New Hampshire earlier this month.

“Twelve years of education is not enough anymore,” Biden said, estimating the cost of his plan at $6 billion a year and saying it would cut “in half the cost of their four-year education.” 

Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharApple warns antitrust legislation could expose Americans to malware Big Tech critics launch new project Overnight Defense & National Security — Texas hostage situation rattles nation MORE (Minn.), who came under fire for saying implementing free college would require a “magic genie,” has suggested some one- or two-year community college programs should be free.

And former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas) said at an April town hall in South Carolina that those who want to attend community college should be able to “go without paying a single dime."

Others supporting free community college include entrepreneur Andrew YangAndrew YangBottom line American elections are getting less predictable; there's a reason for that Poll: Harris, Michelle Obama lead for 2024 if Biden doesn't run MORE, former Rep. John DelaneyJohn DelaneyMaryland Democrats target lone Republican in redistricting scheme Warning: Joe Biden's 'eat the rich' pitch may come back to bite you Direct air capture is a crucial bipartisan climate policy MORE (Md.), and former Colorado Gov. John HickenlooperJohn HickenlooperDemocrats race to squash Cruz's Nord Stream 2 sanctions bill Biden addresses Coloradans after wildfires: 'Incredible courage and resolve' Equilibrium/Sustainability — Mars may start 'terraforming itself' MORE.

Tuition-free college

Sanders’ proposal for free public college in 2016 was well received and was quickly adopted by the more progressive wing of the Democratic party.

He also highlighted support for universal free college in his 2020 campaign announcement.

“It is totally counterproductive for our future that millions of Americans are carrying outrageous levels of student debt while many others cannot afford the high cost of higher education,” Sanders said in a video announcing his presidential run. “That is why we need to make public colleges and universities tuition free and lower student debt.”

His proposal was spelled out with the 2017 College for All Act, which would make public college tuition free for students from families earning $125,000 or less per year and make community college completely free for everyone. The bill has yet to be voted on.

The plan’s cost was estimated at $600 billion by Sanders, who said it would be funded in part by a tax on Wall Street.

Rep. Tulsi GabbardTulsi GabbardThe perfect Democratic running mate for DeSantis? Progressives breathe sigh of relief after Afghan withdrawal Hillicon Valley: US has made progress on cyber but more needed, report says | Democrat urges changes for 'problematic' crypto language in infrastructure bill | Facebook may be forced to unwind Giphy acquisition MORE (D-Hawaii) co-sponsored the House version for the College for All Act and has highlighted her support for the legislation while campaigning for president.

Debt-free, but not tuition free, college

Another proposal being floated by 2020 Democrats involves targeting the debt students and their families accrue when attending public college.

Much of it is centered around a bill by Sen. Brian SchatzBrian Emanuel SchatzThe Hill's 12:30 Report: More of Biden's agenda teeters on collapse The Hill's Morning Report: Biden takes it on the chin Senate to take up voting rights bill Tuesday, missing Schumer deadline MORE (D-Hawaii), the Higher Education Act, which seeks to make college “debt free.” The bill was first introduced in 2018 and re-introduced this year.

Under Schatz’s plan, all costs of college, including tuition, housing, food and transportation, would be covered above a family’s expected contribution.

Expected family contribution is a number calculated by the government estimating how much money a family can put toward college. Everything above that number would be covered under the debt-free plan.

States in Schatz’s program would receive a dollar-for-dollar match from the federal government for the funding they allocate toward state schools. To qualify, schools would have to commit to help students pay for the full cost of college without taking on debt through need-based grants like Pell Grants.

The plan’s cost has been estimated at nearly $100 billion.

Multiple education experts described this proposal to The Hill as more comprehensive than Sanders’s College For All Act.

A debt-free plan “changes the target,” Mark Huelsman, Associate Director of Policy and Research of education think-tank Demos, explained to The Hill.

“It takes the total cost of attendance into account, and says no one will have to take on loans to meet that cost. In some ways it’s more generous than tuition-free.”

Huelsman added that that’s because debt-free plans take into account that tuition is only about 40 percent of what it costs to attend a four-year public university.

Schatz’s bill has the backing of Democratic Sens. Warren, Cory BookerCory BookerCNN legal analyst knocks GOP senator over remark on Biden nominee Barnes rakes in almost 0K after Johnson enters Wisconsin Senate race Hillicon Valley: Amazon's Alabama union fight — take two MORE (N.J.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandFormer aide says she felt 'abandoned' by Democrats who advanced Garcetti nomination as ambassador to India Schumer vows to push forward with filibuster change: 'The fight is not over' Defense bill sets up next fight over military justice  MORE (N.Y.) and Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisMadame Tussauds unveils new Biden and Harris figures Democrats ponder Plan B strategy to circumvent voting rights filibuster Watch: Lawmakers, activists, family members call for voting rights legislation on MLK day MORE (Calif.).

The three senators running in 2020 who backed Schatz’s plan also backed Sanders’. None of their campaigns immediately returned requests for comment on their current stance.

Rep. Tim RyanTimothy (Tim) RyanJD Vance raises more than million in second fundraising quarter for Ohio Senate bid Republicans must join us to give Capitol Police funding certainty  On The Trail: Retirements offer window into House Democratic mood MORE (D-Ohio) co-sponsored the 2018 version of the bill in the House. Ryan’s campaign did not reply to a request for comment from The Hill to see if he still supported the legislation as a candidate.

Meanwhile, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete ButtigiegPete ButtigiegAT&T, Verizon to delay 5G rollout near certain airports Top Democrats call on AT&T and Verizon to delay 5G rollouts near airports Hillicon Valley — Airlines issue warning about 5G service MORE has proposed debt-free college through state-federal partnerships and an expansion of Pell Grants to cover non-tuition fees.

Rep. Eric SwalwellEric Michael SwalwellThere's no such thing as 'absolute immunity' for former presidents The Hill's 12:30 Report: Biden strategizes with Senate Dems The Hill's 12:30 Report: 2021 ends with 40-year inflation high MORE (D-Calif.) has voiced support for creating a path to debt-free public college for students who do work study and commit to serving their communities after college.

Rep. Seth MoultonSeth MoultonUkraine president, US lawmakers huddle amid tensions with Russia Gallego leads congressional delegation to Ukraine Bill seeks to aid families of Black WWII veterans deprived of GI benefits MORE (D-Mass.) campaign told The Hill they support debt-free college as a goal, “but not the only goal.”

Universal debt and tuition free college

Two 2020 Democratic candidates have unveiled more sweeping proposals to tackle the skyrocketing cost of a college education.

Warren rolled out a proposal in April to eliminate tuition and other fees at all public colleges and universities while also cancelling nearly all student loan debt.

The "entire cost" of the higher-education reform proposal would be covered by Warren’s proposed 2 percent annual tax on families with $50 million or more, which she calls the "ultra-millionaire tax."

Her proposal also includes dollar-for-dollar cost matching between the federal government and states for tuition and fees.

“Warren has reset the debate among candidates on cancelling student debt the way Bernie Sanders did in 2015/2016,” Huelsman told The Hill.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro was the second 2020 candidate to roll out a comprehensive higher-education reform platform.

His "People First Education" plan would eliminate tuition at public colleges, universities, community colleges, and technical and vocational schools while providing incentives to reduce non-tuition fees.

It would also expand grant programs and loan forgiveness programs to lower-income students, a group that some critics say are inadequately addressed by free-tuition plans, while also capping interest payments for some students.

Castro’s campaign told The Hill the plan would cost approximately $1.5 trillion and be paid for by repealing and replacing President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump lawyers to Supreme Court: Jan. 6 committee 'will not be harmed by delay' Two House Democrats announce they won't seek reelection DiCaprio on climate change: 'Vote for people that are sane' MORE’s tax plan, adding that investments into alleviating student loan debt and improving education would pay for themselves eventually.

-- Updated on June 3 at 5:50 p.m.