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How Do the Presidential Elections Affect College Students and Tuitions?

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OneClass Blog
5 Jun 2019
23 min read

updated : November 21, 2019

The 2020 presidential election will be the first chance for Gen Z to have a say in national politics, and the issues of the generation are primed for national discussion.

For those attending college, the issue of student debt will be front and center. With the average college debt at $36,299, the topic is personally relevant to a graduate’s financial health. Moreover, total student debt has topped $1.3 trillion, making it an economic issue that can’t be ignored.

The other major issue at play is the cost of tuition and access to education. Not only has the cost to attend college increased nearly eight times faster than wages, but the steep rates have also been one of the factors driving the student debt problem.

According to Pew Research Center, young people aged 18 to 23 will account for 10 percent of eligible voters, potentially having the capacity to swing the election. Moreover, current polling shows a 19 percent higher expected turnout of those aged 18 to 29, when compared to the previous presidential primary.This has politicians positioning their campaign to address these issues of student debt and college tuition.

Where do the 2020 presidential candidates stand? Let’s explore the candidates’ education positions and proposals that'll affect college students.

Presidential Candidates’ Positions on Student Debt

Nearly 45 million Americans currently hold student debt. Included among them are even some presidential candidates, such as South Bend, Indiana, Mayor, Pete Buttigieg, who holds a student loan debt of more than $140,004.

The personal finance issue is sure to influence the discussion prior to the presidential election. Currently, the average monthly payment on student loans is nearly $400, which is about 10 percent of a recent grad’s pre-tax income.

Many Democratic party candidates have taken a stance on the issue. Here’s what we know:

Democratic Primary: Major Candidates
Loan Forgiveness
Loan Refinancing
Bernie Sanders 2019: Plans to cancel all student debt. N/A
Joe Biden 2019: Build on Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program so that more teachers can participate. 2019: Proposes no interest accrual for low-income college grads.
Beto O'Rourke 2019: Supports public service loan forgiveness. 2019: Supports refinancing at lower interest rates.
Kamala Harris 2019: Low-income students receive some debt cancellation if they start a business in a disadvantaged community. 2019: Supports the ability to refinance loans at current rates.
Elizabeth Warren 2019: Debt cancellation with amounts correlated to household income. 2019: Introduced a bill to refinance student loans at 3.76%.
Cory Booker 2018: Introduced a bill to forgive student loan debt for teachers. 2019: Supports legislation for student loan refinancing.
Andrew Yang 2019: Supports expanding loan forgiveness programs and partial reduction in loan principals for recent grads. 2019: Supports the government acquisition of outstanding student debt with a graduate's commitment to pay 10% of income toward loans for 10 years.
Pete Buttigieg 2019: Proposes an expansion to the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. 2019: Wants to make it easier to refinance federal student loans.
Amy Klobuchar 2019: Loan forgiveness for in-demand occupations. 2019: Supports refinancing options.
Democratic Primary: Underdogs
Loan Forgiveness
Loan Refinancing
Tom Steyer 2019: Forgive student debt of permanently disabled veterans. Unknown
Tulsi Gabbard Unknown Unknown
Julián Castro 2019: After 240 payments, borrower receives non-taxable loan forgiveness. (Payments include the $0 installments prior to meeting the income threshold.) 2019: Borrower would make no payments until earning 2.5 times the federal poverty level($31,225), and payments are capped at 10% of the amount earned above that threshold.
Michael Bennet Unknown Unknown
Steve Bullock 2019: Doesn't support loan forgiveness and instead is proposing tax incentives for employees to pay student debt. 2019: Limit student loan interest.
John Delaney 2019: Proposes to forgive loans to students who move to rural America for 10 years. Unknown
Tim Ryan 2018: Supported expansion of Public Service Loan Forgiveness. 2019: Supports legislation for student loan refinancing.
Marianne Williamson 2019: Proposes student loan forgiveness. 2019: Proposes reducing interest rates to a nominal amount.
Wayne Messam 2019: Supports a one-time policy to cancel all federal and private student loans. N/A

The Democratic hopefuls aren't the only ones who've taken a stance on the issue. President Donald Trump has proposed policy initiatives.

Republican Nomination
Loan Forgiveness
Loan Refinancing
Donald Trump 2019: Proposes eliminating the current Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and implementing forgiveness of all undergraduate debt after 15 years of payments. 2019: Proposes reducing repayment plan options from eight to two.

Presidential Candidates’ Positions on College Tuition

Many Democratic candidates argue that the growing requirement for college degrees in today’s job market means that an Associate's or Bachelor's degree should be as accessible as a high school diploma.

A large portion of the Democratic field supports some form of free public college education.

In a divergence from the pack, NJ Senator Cory Booker supports a type of savings account that can be used for either college or a mortgage.

Here’s where the candidates stand on the cost of college:

Democratic Primary: Major Candidates
Tuition-free college
Debt-free college
Bernie Sanders 2019: Continues to support free four-year public college, as he did in his 2016 campaign. 2016: Supported a Hillary Clinton plan for debt-free college.
Joe Biden 2019: Supports free community college, a change for a 2016 position that supported free four-year college. Unknown
Beto O'Rourke 2019: Supports free community college. 2019: Supports debt-free higher education.
Kamala Harris 2019: Free community college. 2019: Co-sponsored debt-free college bill.
Elizabeth Warren 2019: Proposes making public college tuition free. N/A
Cory Booker 2019: Tuition-free community college. 2018: Proposed "baby bonds," an interest-bearing account with federal contributions that can be used to pay for college or to buy a home. 2019: Co-sponsored debt-free college bill.
Andrew Yang 2019: Proposed lowering tuition costs through changes in college administration and finance. Unknown
Pete Buttigieg 2019: Changed his position to support tuition-free college for lower and middle income families. Low-income families eligible for Pell Grants to support basic living expenses. N/A
Amy Klobuchar 2019: Proposes free community college. 2019: Doesn't support debt-free college.
Democratic Primary: Underdogs
Tuition-free college
Debt-free college
Tom Steyer 2019: Guaranteed access to public college. Unknown
Tulsi Gabbard 2019: Free community college for all; free public four-year college for families making less than $125k N/A
Julián Castro 2019: Proposes tuition-free public college. N/A
Michael Bennet 2019: Free community college 2019: Debt-free four-year public college
Steve Bullock 2019: Plans to freeze tuition rates at public universities, as he did in Montana. 2019: Proposes debt-free community college
John Delaney 2019:Supports guaranteed access to community college or technical training. Unknown
Tim Ryan 2018: Supported legislation on tuition-free college. 2018: Supported legislation on debt-free college.
Marianne Williamson 2019: Proposes free college for qualified students. N/A
Wayne Messam 2019: Plans to expand student aid. Unknown

As to the other side of the aisle, President Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee has a very different approach to college tuition rates. Here's how he stands on college tuition:

Republican Nominee
Tuition-free college
Debt-free college
Donald Trump 2019: Current administration has declined to work with Dems on legislation for free college tuition; proposes cutting total amount of work-study funding by 56%. 2019: Proposes a cap to student borrowing amounts for parents and grad students and implementing risk sharing so colleges would be partially responsible if a student defaults on loans.

Now that we know what the candidates think about college tuition, let’s consider how the majority of students stand on this issue. A Harvard poll asked students what they thought about a plan for free community college for all and free public four-year college for those whose families make up to $125,000 per year.

About 51 percent of students support this initiative, while 28 percent oppose the proposal.

College Students’ response to free public college for families with incomes up to $125k per year

Presidential Candidates’ Positions on For-profit Colleges

Significantly fewer candidates have come out on the issue of for-profit colleges.

Here’s what we know:

Trump: Supports increasing access to for-profit colleges. Notably, his business venture, Trump University, was a for-profit education company.

Warren: Supports ending public funding of for-profit colleges.

Castro: Supports ending public funding of for-profit colleges.

Harris: Has previously gone after at least one for-profit college that was committing fraud and intends to take an aggressive policy stance.

Sanders: In 2018, he asked the IRS to “closely scrutinize” for-profit colleges.

Buttigieg: Proposes stricter standards for for-profit colleges.

Ryan: In 2018, he supported legislation that cracks down on for-profit institutions.

Presidential Candidates’ Education Proposals

Do you want to cut out the middleman and hear the candidates’ plans for education in their own words?

Here are the available proposals and policy papers from candidates who are running for president in 2020:

Trump: Budget proposal for FY 2020

Biden: Formal education proposal

Sanders: Formal education proposal

Harris:  Formal education proposal

Warren: Formal education proposal

Booker: Education statement

Buttigieg: Formal education proposal

Yang: Formal education proposal

Klobuchar: Education statement

Castro: Formal education proposal

Delaney: Formal education proposal

Ryan: Formal education proposal

Bennet: Formal education proposal

Messam: Formal education proposal

Williamson: Formal education proposal

Here are some of the candidates’ statements on the topic during the first five debates:

Bernie Sanders: “I believe that education is the future for this country, and that is why I believe that we must make public colleges and universities tuition-free and eliminate student debt, and we do that by placing a tax on Wall Street.”

Amy Klobuchar: “So I do get concerned about paying for college for rich kids; I do. But I think my plan is a good one and my plan would be to first of all make community college free and make sure that everyone else besides that top percentile gets help with their education… And then the third thing I would do is make it easier for students to pay off their student loans. Because I can tell you this: If billionaires can pay off their yachts, students should be able to pay off their student loans.”

Pete Buttigieg: “It’s logical to me that if you can refinance your house you ought to be able to refinance your student debt. I also believe in free college for low and middle income students for whom cost could be a barrier. I just don’t believe it makes sense to ask working class families to subsidize even the children of billionaires. I think the children of the wealthiest Americans can pay at least a little bit of tuition. 

Joe Biden: “That’s why there should be free community college, cutting in half the cost of college. That’s why we should be in the position where we do not have anyone have to pay back the student debt when they get out, they’re making less than $25,000 a year. Their debt is frozen. No interest payment until they get beyond that.”

Elizabeth Warren: “Right now in America, African-Americans are more likely to borrow money to go to college, borrow more money while they're in college, and have a harder time paying that debt off after they get out. Today in America, a new study came out, 20 years out, whites who borrowed money, 94 percent of them have paid off their student loan debt, 5 percent of African-Americans have paid it off. I believe that means everyone on this stage should be embracing student loan debt forgiveness. It will help close the black-white wealth gap.”

Booker: “I happen to be the other Rhodes Scholar mayor on this stage,” he said, referring to Pete Buttigieg.

Marianne Williamson: “If we get rid of this college debt, think of all the young people who will have the discretionary spending, they’ll be able to start their business. The best thing you could do to stimulate the US economy is to get rid of this debt.”

Who’s Leading the Polls for Young Voters?

Currently, the notable presidential primary candidates include 17 Democrats and four Republicans. If this large pool doesn't have enough options for you, there are additional third-party options including a performance artist and one Jeopardy! Finalist.

On the Republican ticket, President Donald Trump is the presumptive nominee. Even though he’s being challenged, Trump holds a significant lead among likely voters.

Republican Primary - National Poll   (November 18, 2019)

  • Trump, 78%
  • Sanford, 4%
  • Weld, 1%
  • Walsh, 1%

In a recent report on campus politics that was prepared by the Panetta Institute for Public Policy, about 19 percent of college students feel positively about President Donald Trump, while 68 percent feel negatively. This is skewed from the party lines of college campuses with Republicans accounting for 27 percent of college students and Democrats accounting for 55 percent.

The Democratic field is obviously much more crowded. In fact, there are 35 percent more candidates in the 2020 Democratic primary than there were in the 2016 Republican primary.

What’s especially interesting is that a poll of young voters reveals dramatically different candidate preferences.

According to Harvard’s poll of Americans aged 18 to 29, Sen. Bernie Sanders is in the lead with 28 percent. That means Sanders is polling 11 points ahead with young voters when compared to all voters.

Democratic Primary - Candidates Who Are More Popular
with Young Voters than in National Polls
Young Voters (Age 18-29)
Current Polling (National)
Sanders 28 17 11
Warren 22 19 3
Yang 6 3 3

On the flip side, several candidates are less popular among young voters than they are nationally. In particular, former Vice President Joe Biden is polling at 25 nationally among all voters, but he's 9 points lower among young voters.

Democratic Primary - Candidates Who Are More Popular
with Young Voters than in National Polls
Young Voters (Age 18-29)
Current Polling (National)
Biden 16 25 -9
Buttigieg 4 8 -4
Klobuchar 0 2 -2
Booker 1 2 -1
Harris 3 4 -1

What College Students Can Expect During Election Season

In the upcoming political campaign, college students are high-value votes to presidential candidates. It’s not that the votes will have more weight, but winning over a college student can have a more significant impact.

A UCLA study found that “more freshmen than ever before in the survey’s history said exerting political influence is one of their most important life goals,” according to the Atlantic.

College students should expect politicians to be strongly campaigning for their vote and influence.

The sixth Democratic debate will be held in Los Angeles on December 19th. Even as new candidates are throwing their hat in the ring, there are just two months before the Iowa caucus and New Hampshire primary. As the election heats up, the current situation of political polarization may result in increasing tensions across college campuses.

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Image attribution: Andrey Popov -


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