The University Network

2020 Candidates On Free College

Free college, an idea Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) made popular in 2016, has already become a key talking point in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election.

Tuition costs are forcing students and their parents to take out high-interest-rate loans that can take decades to pay off.

Currently, Americans owe more than $1.56 trillion in student loans, which is $521 billion more than the total credit card debt in the United States. And individually, the average student loan borrower graduates with $37,172 left to pay.

But recent graduates’ wallets aren’t the only thing to be worried about. Student debt greatly impacts the economy. It hinders young people’s ability to buy a home, start a business or be an active consumer.

So, higher education in the United States clearly needs to be made more affordable. And going into the campaign trail, many of the 2020 Democratic candidates have gone as far to suggest it should be free.

Here is where the 2020 candidates stand on free college:

Supporters of “tuition-free” college

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

  • Four-year college

Bernie Sanders has been one of the leading advocates for tuition-free public college, arguably introducing the idea into national discourse during the 2016 Democratic primaries. Sanders’ College for All Act seeks to eliminate tuition and fees for families making under $125,000 per year. While it doesn’t eliminate tuition fees outright, it would provide states with a total of $47 billion per year in federal funding to eliminate undergraduate tuition at public universities across America.

In a 2017 opinion piece published by Vice Impact, Sanders argued that the United States needs to vastly improve the education of its workforce in order to compete in the world economy. Noting that the United States has slipped from first in the world in college graduation rates to eleventh in 2017, his contention is: “The main reason is because the ever-rising cost of higher education puts college out of reach for many families or requires students to take on a mountain of debt.”

“It’s time to change that dynamic,” he continued. “It’s time to make public colleges and universities tuition free for the working families of our country. It is time for every child to understand that if they study hard and take their school work seriously they will be able to get a higher education, regardless of their family’s income. It’s time to reduce the outrageous burden of student debt that is weighing down the lives of millions of college graduates.”

  • Community college

Sanders’ tuition-free higher education plan extends to community college students. Under the College for All Act, community college would be tuition-free for students of all income levels.

To read Bernie Sanders’ positions on student loan debt and other key issues, click here.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii)

  • Four-year college

Gabbard publicized her support for tuition-free college when she endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) College For All Act in 2017.

“The cost of tuition keeps too many people from pursuing a college education. We need to resolve student debt and guarantee #CollegeForAll,” she tweeted.

  • Community college

Gabbard also supports measures included in Sanders’ College For All Act that would make community college free.

“Whether it’s vocational training or a college degree, education should not be cost-prohibitive for anyone,” Gabbard states on her website.  

To read Tulsi Gabbard’s positions on student loan debt and other key issues, click here.

Joe Biden, Former U.S. Vice President

  • Four-year college

Biden has his own ideas on how to make four-year college tuition-free. In a recent speech, he explained the details of his plan. He claims that his free-college program would cost $6 billion every year, and it would be paid for by eliminating the “stepped-up basis loophole,” which essentially allows heirs to inheritances to avoid paying capital gains taxes on inherited assets like stocks and land.

  • Community college

Biden has been a staunch supporter of making community college free for quite some time. In 2015, he stood alongside President Obama in requesting funding to make two years of community college free for low-income students. His wife Jill has spent time teaching in community colleges, and calls them “America’s best-kept secret.” She serves as the honorary chair to the College Promise Campaign, an organization dedicated to making free community college a reality in all 50 states. If she becomes the First Lady, there is a good chance making community college free would be at the top of her bucket list.

To read Joe Biden’s positions on student loan debt and other key issues, click here.

Julián Castro, Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary

  • Four-year college

Castro’s education plan, called the “People First Education Plan,” seeks to eliminate the cost of tuition at public colleges and universities. While his plan does not specifically call for eliminating the “entire cost of college,” he does suggest taking certain measures, such as expanding the Pell Grant program, to help students afford living expenses while working toward their degree.

“Students and graduates who have made a commitment to invest in their futures should see an investment from their government in return,” Castro wrote in an outline of his plan. “My plan would make that investment, knowing it will pay off both for students and for our national prosperity in the long run.”

  • Community college

Castro’s new plan would also eliminate tuition costs at all public community colleges and technical and vocational schools.

Supporters of eliminating the “entire cost” of college

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.)

  • Four-year college

While some candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Tulsi Gabbard, support tuition-free college, Harris supports debt-free college education.

There is an important distinction between “debt-free college” and “free college” programs. The phrase “free college” can be used to describe “tuition-free” programs, which would relieve students at state universities from paying tuition, but does not cover the costs of books, housing, or meal plans. “Debt-free college” proposals, however, cover tuition as well as living expenses.

Harris has co-sponsored the Debt-Free College Act of 2018, which would “provide students the opportunity to attain higher education at in-state public institutions of higher education without debt.”

  • Community college

Harris has expressed support for free tuition in community colleges. In 2016, prior to her election to the Senate, she drafted a petition stating that community college tuition should be free. One year later, she signed onto Bernie Sanders’ College For All Act, a measure that would have provided free tuition to community college students, regardless of income.

To read Kamala Harris’ positions on student loan debt and other key issues, click here.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.)

  • Four-year college

Booker joins Harris and others in support of the Debt Free College Act, which would make the entire cost of college free, including housing, books and other expenses.

“We constantly tell young people that higher education is the key to success. Yet, our current system punishes them for seeking an education through predatory loans and saddling them with outrageous debt,” Booker said in a statement. “For the millions of students across the country, we must do better and [the Debt Free College Act] does that with a path for achieving a debt-free college degree.”

  • Community college

Booker is a staunch supporter of community colleges. He previously supported The America’s College Promise Act, which would make two years of community college free. The Act proposed that the federal government would invest $3 for every $1 a state invests towards community college tuition for students. It also ensures that community colleges offer academic credits that can easily be transferred to a four-year state college or university.

“Community colleges serve almost half of the undergraduate students in the United States and both help students prepare to succeed at four-year institutions and provide critical workforce training,” a passage on his website states. “Senator Booker will continue to advocate for community colleges both in New Jersey and across the country.”

To read Cory Booker’s positions on student loan debt and other key issues, click here.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.)

  • Four-year college

In the past, Gillibrand has expressed her support of the Debt Free College Act, which would make the entire cost of college free, including housing, books and other expenses.

But more recently, she suggested a national public service plan, in which young people could commit a year of public service in exchange for two years of free college, or commit two years of public service in exchange for four years of free college.

  • Community college

Gillibrand has long believed that community college should be free. Through her recent public service plan, students could exchange public service work for free tuition at all public universities, including community college.

To read Kirsten Giilibrand’s positions on student loan debt and other key issues, click here.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.)

  • Four-year college

Warren recently proposed her own comprehensive plan called the Universal Free College Program, which would eliminate the total cost of college — including room, board and textbooks — by implementing a 2 percent annual tax on the 75,000 richest families in the United States. Her campaign estimates the tax would bring in $2.75 trillion over 10 years.

In a passage on her website, Warren writes: “As I travel all across the Commonwealth [Massachusetts], I meet young people who have done everything right: they played by the rules, they worked hard, they finished college, and yet they’re finding themselves unemployed, drowning in debt, and in many cases, moving back home with mom and dad. These young people did all we asked of them — and they’re getting slammed.”

  • Community college

Warren has advocated for free community college for quite some time. She first publicized her commitment to making community college free and accessible for anyone when she supported Bernie Sanders’ College For All Act. And her new Universal Free College Plan would also make community college free.

To read Elizabeth Warren’s positions on student loan debt and other key issues, click here.

Do NOT Support Free Four-Year College

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.)

  • Four-year college

Unlike many of her competitors for the 2020 Democratic nomination, Klobuchar is not a proponent of making four-year colleges and universities tuition-free.

“I am not for free four-year college for all, no,” she said at a CNN town hall. “And I wish — if I was a magic genie and could give that to everyone and we could afford it, I would,” she said.

Instead, she takes a matter-of-fact approach to the subject. She, as a more-moderate candidate, doesn’t believe that free four-year college for all is a realistically achievable goal. Instead, she suggests ideas, such as expanding Pell grants and increasing student loan affordability, to chip away student debt.  

  • Community college

Klobuchar has, however, co-sponsored the America’s College Promise Act, showing she does support making two-year community college tuition-free. While speaking at a CNN town hall, she suggested that there are a lot of open jobs that call for certifications and two-year degrees — alluding that graduating from a four-year college or university isn’t the only path to a successful career.

“We must also invest in community and technical colleges, apprenticeships, and training and credential programs to ensure we are preparing people for the jobs of tomorrow that our businesses are creating today,” Klobuchar wrote on her Senate website.

To read Amy Klobuchar’s positions on student loan debt and other key issues, click here.

Andrew Yang, N.Y. Entrepreneur

  • Four-year college

Yang is not a supporter of free college. “I love the spirit of free college . . .  I just think it sends the wrong message,” Yang said at a South by Southwest press conference.

Yang recognizes the need to bring down tuition costs, but, largely, he thinks that the United States is “overselling” four-year colleges. Instead, he believes that young adults should consider college as just one of their many options.

“As we have tried to plow more people into college. . . we’ve brought down the college completion rate,” Yang said.

“Forty-one percent of people who start college do not graduate within four years,” he continued. “And so selling college as a panacea is not going to work. It’s subsidizing something that is enjoyed by the top third of the population,”

Policy-wise, he wants to address the college affordability problem at its roots — by shrinking tuition costs. Specifically, he wants colleges to work towards adjusting their administrator-to-student ratio from the current 1-to-21 to 1-to-30.

“The ratio was 1 to 50 in the 1970s,” Yang states on his website. “If we can get back to that level then college will be much cheaper.

  • Community college

Yang believes in investing “very highly” in vocational schools, technical schools and community colleges, as they produce skilled workers in necessary fields, such as plumbing and air conditioning repair, who aren’t as replaceable by automation.

“We need to start trying to address the imbalances in our system. And one of the imbalances is that we are overprescribing college and we’re undersupporting vocational trades and apprenticeships,” Yang said.

To read Andrew Yang’s positions on student loan debt and other key issues, click here.

Pete Buttigieg, Mayor of South Bend, Indiana

  • Four-year college

Recently, Buttigieg switched his opinion on free college. Specifically, he now supports making public college “debt-free” for low-income families and “tuition-free” for middle-income families. Largely, he plans to do this through a state-federal partnership and by increasing Pell Grants.

To read Pete Buttigieg’s positions on student loan debt and other key issues, click here.

Beto O’Rourke, Former Democratic Representative of Texas

  • Four-year college

Overall, Beto O’Rourke has stayed relatively quiet in regards to his opinion on free four-year college. However, in a recent video taken at Grinnell College, O’Rourke answered a student’s question, saying, “No, I’m not for free college for all.”

  • Community college

O’Rourke has, however, publicized his support of the America’s College Promise Act, which would make two years of community college free.

In an interview with The Cougar — the University of Houston’s student-run news organization, O’Rourke said: “I’d love to continue the proposal made by our previous president, Barack Obama, that at a minimum, your first two years at any state institution — community college, University of Texas, A&M, Tech, taxpayer-supported institutions — should be free for the student at a minimum. That investment, maybe a little upfront, is paid back many times over in the productivity, earning potential and the taxes paid by those who are able to afford an education. I think those are three great ideas to start with. I’m open to others. We can certainly do better by our students.”

To read Beto O’Rourke’s positions on student loan debt and other key issues, click here.

President Donald Trump

  • Four-year college

Trump is not in support of making four-year colleges and universities tuition-free. The concept of free four-year college came up in the 2016 presidential race. In an interview, Trump’s then-campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis spoke for the Trump campaign, saying, “Unequivocally no. How do you pay for that? It’s absurd on its surface.”

  • Community college

In the 2016 interview, Clovis also spoke for the Trump campaign in rejecting the idea of a state-federal partnership to make community college free.

Community colleges are “damn near free” now, and “almost anyone can afford community college,” Clovis said. Although these statements are from 2016, there is little to suggest that Trump’s opinion has changed on the matter. Most of his suggestions to eliminate student debt surround reforming student loans.

To read Donald Trump’s positions on student loan debt and other key issues, click here.