With national student loan totals topping $1 trillion and indebted Americans shelling out an average of $242 per month in payments to Sallie Mae and other lenders, college debt is an issue on the minds of many voters, especially younger ones. Education is the second-most important issue to voters between the ages of 18 and 34, a 2016 Rock the Vote/USA Today survey found, just behind the economy.
At least some of the current crop of presidential candidates have realized people are worried about student loans and college affordability. While educational debt hasn’t gotten the same attention from 2016 hopefuls as hot-button issues like terrorism and immigration, that’s not to say candidates aren’t thinking about it. Several have made reforming the students loan system and making college more affordable an official part of their platforms, while others have explained in interviews and debates how they’d address the issue. Here’s what a few of the leading presidential candidates say they plan to do about student loans.
“We need to make a quality education affordable and available to everyone willing to work for it, without saddling them with decades of debt,” Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton has said. To do that, she’s proposed a “New College Compact” so students at four-year, public colleges can graduate without taking on debt to cover tuition costs. (Students would still have to cover room, board, and other expenses, perhaps through loans.) States would receive grants to help lower tuition costs and make college affordable.
Clinton also want to make community colleges tuition-free; cut interest rates on student loans and allow current borrowers to refinance at lower rates; close a loophole critics say encourages for-profit colleges to aggressively recruit veterans who receive GI Bill benefits; and expand the AmeriCorps program so people who complete two years of community service and one year in a public service job can attend a public university without taking out loans for either tuition or living expenses. She also wants to make income-based repayment “simple and universal” and simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).
All these new initiatives will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $350 billion over 10 years, according to the Clinton campaign. “Closing tax loopholes and expenditures for the most fortunate,” will supposedly cover the cost.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz has been fairly quiet on issues related to student loans and higher education, though when campaigning he occasionally mentions his six-figure debt he incurred to pay for his education. Cruz was among a group of Senate Republicans who blocked a 2014 bill that would have allowed people to refinance their student loans at lower interest rates. In 2012, he praised the student aid program for making college more accessible but suggested states should be responsible for managing the program, not the federal government.
“We should take the funding, give it to the states and put the states in the position to make the decisions how to have the greatest impact in their communities,” Cruz told the Dallas Morning News.
Republican candidate Marco Rubio has made no secret of his own struggles to pay back the nearly $150,000 he borrowed to complete his undergraduate and law degrees. So it’s hardly surprising he’s included a proposal for overhauling what he calls an “antiquated and broken” higher education system in his platform. Like other candidates, his suggestions including making income-based student loan repayment automatic and simplifying the FAFSA. But one of his other proposals is more radical.
Rather than having people take out loans to pay for college, Rubio has proposed “student investment plans,” where private investors would agree to fund someone’s college education in exchange for a share of their future earnings. He also wants to reform the college accreditation system to encourage innovation and competition in education, which he claims would make it easier and cheaper for people to earn degrees.
Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders wants to make public colleges and universities tuition-free. He also proposes cutting interest rates on student loans and allowing current borrowers to refinance at lower rates. In addition, the Vermont senator would like to expand the federal work study program so low-income students can better afford room, board, book, and living expenses and graduate college debt-free.
Sanders also wants to stop the government from “profiteering on the backs of college students” through the federal student loan program. Whether the government actually makes money on student lending is a matter of debate, though. Based one accounting method, federal student loans will generate a profit of $135 billion from 2015 through 2024, but use another accounting method and you end up with a loss of $88 billion over the same period, according to the Congressional Budget Office.
To cover the $75 billion per-year cost of his higher education initiatives, Sanders would impose “a tax of a fraction of a percent on Wall Street speculators who nearly destroyed the economy seven years ago.”
Republican front-runner Donald Trump doesn’t include a position on student loans and college affordability on his campaign website. But like Sanders, he has criticized the government for supposedly making money on student loans.
“That’s probably one of the only things the government shouldn’t make money off – I think it’s terrible that one of the only profit centers we have is student loans,” Trump said in an interview with The Hill. In the same interview, he said he wanted to create more good jobs for young people who graduate from college with lots of debt.
“I’ll see so many young people and they work really hard for four years. They borrowed money. Their parents don’t have much. They work all together and they mortgage their future,” he said. “They get good marks – I’m not even talking about the ones that are at the bottom, I’m talking about the ones at the top. They can’t get jobs and they don’t know what to do.”