Biden Plan Focuses on Community Colleges

October 8, 2019

Joe Biden released a postsecondary education plan Tuesday that draws a further contrast between his presidential campaign and those of Democratic rivals Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

The former vice president's plan focuses on boosting federal support for community colleges, minority-serving institutions and the Pell Grant program. It also proposes enacting more generous terms for student borrowers and streamlining the process for Public Service Loan Forgiveness.

Biden’s plan calls for legislation that would fund up to two years of free tuition at community colleges for every student, including undocumented and part-time students. The proposal would be supported by a state-federal partnership where the federal government would cover 75 percent of the cost.

Biden also proposed doubling the maximum value of the Pell Grant, which is $6,195 for the current award year. The campaign said he would support making undocumented students eligible for Pell. Notably, the proposal doesn’t call for lifting the 1994 ban on federal aid for incarcerated students, although Biden’s campaign said he would restore eligibility for the formerly incarcerated. (Most people released from prison can already receive Pell Grants, except for some people with drug-related convictions.) There is broad support in the Democratic primary field for lifting financial aid restrictions for incarcerated students.

The plan promises to cut in half loan payments for student borrowers enrolled in income-based repayment plans. Individuals making more than $25,000 would pay 5 percent of their monthly discretionary income under the plan. Borrowers making $25,000 or less wouldn’t be responsible for payments. Any loan balance would be forgiven after 20 years of payments under the plan. And debt forgiven through the income-based repayment program wouldn’t be taxable under the proposal.

Biden’s campaign also proposed fast-tracking Public Service Loan Forgiveness benefits by canceling $10,000 annually for up to five years for each year working in public sector or nonprofit jobs or in community service. Currently, borrowers seeking that benefit have to make 120 qualifying monthly payments before having their entire remaining balance discharged.

The plan includes $70 billion in new funding for historically black colleges, tribal colleges and under-resourced minority-serving institutions. The money would be directed toward college affordability, new campus-based research and programs focused on student retention and graduation. The campaign also called for making a new $50 billion investment in high-quality training programs, including registered apprenticeships, and another $8 billion in improvements to community college facilities and technology.

The proposal would cost about $750 billion over 10 years, the campaign estimated, and would be paid for with new taxes on the wealthy.

Sanders and Warren both issued higher ed proposals this year calling for massive student debt cancellation. Sanders wants to cancel all student loans, while Warren would forgive up to $50,000 in debt for anyone making up to $100,000. Those campaigns also called for making two-year and four-year public colleges tuition-free.

South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, another Democratic primary candidate, has called for making public colleges tuition-free for middle-income students and “debt-free” for low-income students. Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar has offered a higher ed position much like Biden’s, including free community college, expanded Pell Grants and refinancing for student loan interest rates.

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