Democratic Divisions on Higher Ed

In first debates of Democratic presidential primary, candidates outline contrasting visions on college affordability, student debt.

June 28, 2019
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Candidates at Thursday's Democratic presidential primary debate

Candidates vying for the Democratic nomination for president offered contrasting visions on college affordability and student debt in two debates this week.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a Massachusetts Democrat, both have introduced campaign proposals for free public college and student debt cancellation.

Warren's plan would cancel up to $50,000 in student debt for borrowers with incomes under six figures, as well as provide more limited debt relief for higher earning borrowers. The Sanders proposal, released this week, calls for canceling all $1.5 trillion in outstanding U.S. student loan debt.

"I believe we must make public colleges and universities tuition free and eliminate student debt, and we do that by placing a tax on Wall Street," Sanders said at the second Democratic debate, on Thursday.

Other candidates, however, have argued for targeted college affordability measures and limited fixes for student borrowers.

Pete Buttigieg​

The South Bend, Indiana, mayor said he and his husband, a teacher, hold six-figure student loan debt. Buttigieg supports giving borrowers the ability to refinance their student loan debt. He also said he wants to double the size of the Pell Grant, which will give students a maximum of $6,195 in the 2019-20 academic year.

"I support free public colleges for low-income and middle-income families," he said. "I just don't believe it makes sense for working-class families to subsidize tuition even for billionaires. The children of the wealthiest of Americans can pay at least a little bit of tuition."

Buttigieg also said he wants to enact policies, such as a $15 minimum wage, that will assist non-college graduates.

"Yes it needs to be more affordable in this country to go to college, but it needs to be affordable in this country not to go to college," he said.

Amy Klobuchar​

Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar said she supports free community college and a maximum Pell Grant of $12,000 a year. But she rejected calls for free four-year, public college.

Klobuchar also backs an option for borrowers to refinance their student loans.

"You have so many people that are having trouble affording college and having trouble affording their premiums," she said. "So I do get concerned about paying for college for rich kids.'

Klobuchar said both her father and sister got their first degrees from community colleges. "There's many paths to success, as well as certifications," she said.

Joe Biden

Biden, the former vice president and Delaware senator, said he backed free community college and debt relief for borrowers making less than $25,000 a year.

Elizabeth Warren

In closing remarks Wednesday, Warren told a personal story about how affordable tuition had opened a path to her for a college education.

"By the time I graduated from high school, my family -- my family didn't have the money for a college application, much less a chance for me to go to college," she said. "But I got my chance. It was a $50-a-semester commuter college. That was a little slice of government that created some opportunity for a girl. And it opened my life."


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