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Free college tuition: Where do the 2020 candidates stand?

Students at the State University of New York in Oswego. New York is the first state to offer free tuition at CUNY and SUNY schools for certain qualifying students. (WSTM)
Students at the State University of New York in Oswego. New York is the first state to offer free tuition at CUNY and SUNY schools for certain qualifying students. (WSTM)
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For the millions of Americans who go into debt to pay for higher education, tuition-free college is a dream and virtually every Democratic presidential candidate is promising to make free tuition and debt-free college a reality.

Most Americans are painfully aware of the college debt crisis. According to the latest government statistics, 44.7 million Americans have student loan debt and the total U.S. student loan debt has piled up to a staggering $1.56 trillion.

The cost of higher education has impacted homeownership and entrepreneurship. It has led many students to drop out before finishing their degrees, which can permanently hinder their earning potential.

While Republicans and Democrats agree that the growing cost of college and the looming student debt bubble are serious problems, they disagree on the solution.

Here is where the top-polling 2020 candidates stand on free tuition.


President Donald Trump has been virtually silent on the issue of tuition-free college amid growing calls from Democratic presidential candidates and members of Congress.

During the 2016 race, a Trump campaign policy adviser described Hillary Clinton's proposal for free tuition as "absurd" and too costly to taxpayers.

Trump's Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has declined to work with Democrats in Congress on free college tuition legislation. She has also been critical of direct government lending to students, claiming the government loan guarantees have encouraged institutions to raise the tuition and fees.


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.


According to a recent CNBC poll, 57 percent of likely voters support tuition-free state and public colleges, with an overwhelming 80 percent of Democrats approving the idea.

The Campaign for Free College Tuition found even more substantial support with a poll last month showing 75 percent of respondents favor free public college tuition for anyone who is academically qualified.

While the Democratic calls for free tuition and debt-free college are hugely popular, there are reasons to doubt they'll be enacted as policy.

"This is campaign posturing, it's campaign messaging," said Kenneth Meegan, the associate director of economic policy at the Bipartisan Policy Center.

Many of the candidates who are proposing sweeping the higher education reforms will be embraced by progressives, he noted, and they will likely succeed in mobilizing the Democratic base. "But at the end of the day, something this sweeping, especially in the era of divided government, is not going to pass."

Critics have cited practical concerns about the Democratic proposals, particularly the ones that guarantee tuition-free college.

"Nothing is ever really free in this world," said Emma Meshell, the director of Campus Reform's correspondent program.

Warren's proposal is estimated to cost $1.25 billion over the first decade. Sanders' College For All plan would cost at least $750 billion over the first ten years, according to an estimate by the senator's office.

"We shouldn't be reaching deeper into the pockets of our taxpayers to fix a problem that did not come from them," Meshell said. "I ultimately do believe that when it comes to financial decisions, you should bear the consequences of the decisions that you make. And that's a hard lesson but I think now is the time for us to learn it as a generation."

One of the anticipated benefits of free or low-cost education is that it will make higher education accessible to millions of Americans who forgo college or drop out because of the cost. While increasing access and opportunity, it will likely increase enrollment, putting a strain on resources at public universities.

"If you made tuition and fees free at public colleges, you would obviously see a migration from the private colleges to the public colleges," Meegan explained. "Do you really have enough seats there to fill that ... demand?"

According to the last census, about a third of American adults have a four-year degree, the highest number of college graduates since records have been kept.

Increasingly, a bachelor's degree is seen as the ticket to a successful, well-paying job. On average, college graduates earn 60 percent more than those who than those with only a high school diploma. The earning potential rises even further with masters and doctoral degrees, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The demand for a college degree has also raised concerns that four years of free higher education could devalue a college degree, leading employers to require higher levels of degrees. According to a study by Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based employment analytics firm, employers now require bachelor's degrees for a wide range of jobs that were historically dominated by workers without a college degree.

"It's really unfortunate that students have gotten into this situation," Meshell said. "They were really told by the generation before us that going to college is the be all end all and that you have to get a degree—any degree at any cost so you can get a good job... And it has gotten us in a place where students are taking out $80,000 at a time in loans without really thinking about how am I going to be paying this back?"

According to the College Board trends in higher education, the cost to attend a four-year public university increased by about 35 percent over the past decade, from $7,560 in 2008 to $10,230 in 2018.

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The cost to attend a two-year community college, though more affordable, has also increased by about 34 percent, from $2,730 in 2008 to $3,660 in 2018.

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