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Senator Bernie Sanders (left) and former vice president Joe Biden

Getty Images/Win McNamee

Elizabeth Warren’s departure from the race for the Democratic presidential nomination has left two candidates with different approaches to dealing with college affordability and other higher education policy issues. In addition to having different price tags, the plans released by Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders differ in how much detail they provide.

Price Tag:

Biden: $750 billion

Sanders: $2.2 trillion

Debt Forgiveness:

Sanders: Would cancel the entire balance of $1.6 trillion in outstanding student debt in the U.S.

Biden: Would take a more targeted approach, enrolling all existing and new borrowers in income-based repayment plans, except for those who choose to opt out. Borrowers who make $25,000 or less per year would not owe any payments on their undergraduate federal student loans and wouldn't accrue any interest on those loans. Others would pay 5 percent of their discretionary annual income above $25,000 toward loans. The plan would forgive 100 percent of any remaining debt for those who have made payments for 20 years. It also would change the tax code so that debt forgiven through income-based repayment wouldn’t be taxed.

Biden's plan also would revamp the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, giving $10,000 of undergraduate or graduate debt relief for every year of national or community service worked, up to five years. Individuals who work in schools, government and other nonprofit settings would automatically be enrolled in the forgiveness program. It would seek to address the problem of applicants for PSLF being rejected for not enrolling in the right repayment plan. Adjunct professors would be eligible for forgiveness, depending on the amount of time devoted to teaching.

Free College:

Sanders: Would spend $48 billion per year to eliminate tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities, tribal colleges, community colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeship programs. His plan would create a federal-state partnership in which the federal government would pay two-thirds of the cost of providing free tuition, with the state responsible for the other third.

Participating states and tribes must meet several requirements to be eligible, including reductions of their reliance on low-paid contingent faculty members. Funds generated by the program could not be used for administrator salaries, merit-based financial aid or the construction of nonacademic buildings such as stadiums and student centers.

Biden: Would make up to two years of community college free for all students, including those who attend part-time, the children of undocumented immigrants and those who did not graduate high school recently. The program also would be created through a federal-state partnership, in which the federal government would provide 75 percent of the cost, with states picking up the remainder. The federal government would cover 95 percent of the cost of eliminating tuition at tribal community colleges that serve low-income students. Those who would receive two years of college tuition-free could then get another free two years at historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions.

Other Student Aid:

Sanders: Because tuition would no longer exist at public institutions, low-income students would be free to use federal Pell Grants for books, transportation, housing and other costs. The plan would require states and tribes that participate in the federal-state partnership for free college cover any costs that are left over, after grants, for low-income students. It also would triple spending on Federal Work-Study, with a focus on institutions that serve large numbers of low-income students.

Biden: For community college students, the federal-state partnership for free college would be so-called first dollar, meaning that student aid grants could cover other costs of attending college besides tuition.

To help students at four-year institutions pay for costs other than tuition, the plan would create a new grant program to provide support services for students, especially veterans of the U.S. military, single parents, low-income students, students of color and students with disabilities. The grant could be used for public benefits, textbook and transportation costs, and childcare and mental health services. Institutions also could use the money to create emergency grant programs for students who experience an unexpected financial challenge that threatens their ability to stay enrolled in college.

The plan would double the maximum award amount of Pell Grants, increasing the number of middle-class students who’d be eligible for the program. It would allow Dreamers and the formerly incarcerated to receive the grants. Biden would prioritize the use of Federal Work-Study dollars for jobs that either provide skills that are valuable for students' intended careers or that contribute to their communities by mentoring students in K-12 classrooms and community centers.

For-Profit Institutions:

Sanders: does not mention for-profit institutions or cancelling the debt of students who’ve been deceived by for-profit institutions his higher education plan. Sanders didn’t mention restoring the Obama administration's gainful employment rule, which was repealed by Education Secretary Betsy Devos. But he was among a group of six Democratic senators who wrote the Obama administration calling for creation of the rule, which threatened for-profit institutions with the loss of federal student loan dollars if not enough of their graduates were able to repay their student debt. He also pressed DeVos during her 2017 confirmation hearings to preserve the borrower defense rule, which made it easier for people deceived by for-profit institutions to have their student debt forgiven. The rule was also repealed by DeVos.

Biden: Would require for-profit institutions prove their value to the U.S. Department of Education before becoming eligible for federal aid, a possible reference to restoring the gainful employment rule. Would also eliminate the 90/10 loophole that, according to veterans groups,  gives for-profits incentive to aggressively market to service members. Would empower the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to take action against private lenders who mislead students about their options and do not provide an affordable payment plan during times of financial hardship. Would restore the Obama administration’s Borrower’s Defense Rule, Would also allow private student loans to be discharged through bankruptcy.

Improving College Performance:

Sanders: His plan would create a federal-state partnership that would differ from the one eliminating tuition. That program would provide a dollar-for-dollar federal match for states and tribes to increase academic opportunities for students, hire new faculty members and provide professional development opportunities for professors.

Biden: His plan would create a grant program to help community colleges implement evidence-based practices to increase student retention and completion of credential programs. It would invest $8 billion to help community colleges improve the health and safety of their facilities and acquire new technology. It would provide grants to states that work to accelerate students’ attainment of bachelor's degrees and other credentials, such as through offering dual-enrollment programs for community college and four-year degree tracks.

HBCUs and Other Minority-Serving Institutions:

Sanders: The plan would spend $1.3 billion per year to eliminate or significantly reduce tuition and fees for low-income students at roughly 200 HBCUs and minority-serving institutions. To be eligible, at least 35 percent of students at the institution would have to be low income.

Biden: The plan would invest $18 billion in grants to provide two years of free tuition to low-income and middle-class students at HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. In return colleges must invest in lowering prices, improving retention and graduation rates, and closing equity gaps for students of color.

It would spend another $10 billion to create at least 200 new centers of excellence that serve as research incubators and connect underrepresented students in career fields like climate change, globalization, inequality, health disparities and cancer. Would boost funding for agricultural research at land-grant universities, including HBCUs and tribal colleges or universities, and would dedicate additional federal funding or grants and contracts for HBCUs and minority-serving institutions. The plan would require any federal research grants to universities with an endowment of over $1 billion to subcontract with an HBCU, tribal college or minority-serving institution. It also would spend $20 billion to build research facilities and labs at HBCUs, tribal colleges and minority-serving institutions. And the plan would invest $10 billion in programs at HBCUs, tribal college and minority-serving institutions that increase enrollment, retention, completion and employment rates.


Biden: He would pay for the $750 billion plan by closing the “stepped-up basis” loophole, which lowers the capital gains tax liability for property passed on to an heir. Biden also would cap itemized deductions for high-income taxpayers at 28 percent.

Sanders: He would pay for the $2.2 trillion plan by taxing Wall Street trades.

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