Free college tuition: Where do the 2020 candidates stand?
Former Vice President Joe Biden has not yet staked out many policy decisions for 2020 but called for free tuition at two-year and four-year public colleges while serving in the Obama administration.
Biden worked on President Barack Obama’s plan for free community college, the 2015 America’s College Promise program. The proposal was designed to provide federal government assistance to help states waive tuition and fees at two-year community colleges. It didn’t fully launch but led to more than 200 state and local Promise programs.
Biden’s wife and a community college professor, Dr. Jill Biden, is the honorary chair of the College Promise Campaign, a non-profit that aims to implement universal two-year higher education.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders introduced the College For All Act in 2017 to eliminate undergraduate tuition at public universities for households making less than $125,000 per year. Under Sanders’ proposal, the federal government would cover 67 percent of the cost of tuition and the state would cover the remaining 33 percent.
At a recent CNN town hall, Sanders defined higher education as a right. “I believe that every young person in this country, regardless of his or her income, has the right to get all of the education they need,” he said.
Sanders has previously called for student debt forgiveness and loan readjustments.
California Sen. Kamala Harris declared herself in favor of “debt-free college” during her formal announcement of her candidacy. “I am running to declare education is a fundamental right, and we will guarantee that right with universal pre-K and debt-free college,” she said.
Harris did not openly call for free tuition but she is a co-sponsor of Sen. Sanders’ College For All Act and Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz’s Debt-Free College Act, which calls for state and federal matching funds to help cover the cost of tuition for low-income students.
South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg has stood out among the pack of Democratic hopefuls by opposing the idea of “free” college tuition.
In a speech at Northeastern University in April, Buttigieg said, “Americans who have a college degree earn more than Americans who don’t. As a progressive, I have a hard time getting my head around the idea of a majority who earn less because they didn’t go to college subsidizing a minority who earn more because they did.”
Buttigieg has said he favors lending adjustments and allowing students to refinance their loans at lower rates.
Last week, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren released a higher education policy outline. Warren’s proposal would guarantee every American the opportunity to attend a two-year or four-year public college without paying any tuition or fees. In addition, she called for canceling up to $50,000 in student debt for households earning less than $250,000 per year.
The plan would cost an estimated $1.25 trillion over the first ten years and Warren has proposed paying for it with an “Ultra-Millionaire Tax” on the households with $50 million or more in wealth.
Warren, like Sanders, has described college education as a right and “a basic need that should be available for free to everyone who wants to go.”
At a campaign stop at Grinnell College this month, former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke stated bluntly, “No. I am not for free college for all.”
O’Rourke said he supports “debt-free” college and refinancing student loans. While running for the U.S. Senate in 2018, O’Rourke tweeted, “Our country now has more student loan debt than credit card debt. We should allow Texans who commit to working in in-demand fields and in underserved communities the chance to graduate debt free.”
O’Rourke was a supporter of Obama’s 2015 College Promise program to work with states to offer free community college to qualifying students.