2020 Candidates Agree That Student Debt Is A Huge Problem — But How Will They Fix It?

by Monica Hunter-Hart
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Tens of millions of Americans are effected by the nation's student debt burden, and the current presidential hopefuls aim to address the issue in different ways. Whether or not you're struggling with your own loans, it's important to know where the 2020 candidates stand on student loan forgiveness.

According to the U.S. Federal Reserve, the total student loan debt in the United States rose to nearly $1.57 trillion last year. CNBC reports that this debt is spread out among over 44 million borrowers, which is about one out of every four adults. Studies also show that Democratic voters are highly in favor of forgiving some of this burden.

Most of the leading 2020 candidates support some sort of "free college" or "debt-free college" proposal aimed at making higher education more affordable for incoming students. Much attention has been paid to these preventative measures, but there's been less of a focus on how to address the preexisting mountain of debt.

None of the candidates have come out with an official policy proposal that involves student loan forgiveness, but many of them have made it clear where they stand on the issue. Here's what to know so far:

Elizabeth Warren

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Sen. Elizabeth Warren has said that reducing student loan debt would be one of her highest priorities. On her campaign website, she says she intends to pay for "debt relief" with her proposed 2 percent "wealth tax" on those making over $50 million. Late last year, she said she would consider declaring a national emergency over student loan debt.

Warren has been raising the alarm on this for years. A bill she proposed in 2014 would have allowed students to refinance their loans, but it was blocked by the GOP. She's fiercely called out the student loan servicer Navient for exploiting students and successfully pushed for the company to have less access to cheap capital because it wasn't passing on benefits to borrowers.

Earlier this month, Warren introduced a bill that would allow students to refinance their loans at 3.76 percent (federal interest rates for students are currently between 5.05 and 7.6 percent). The senator is openly seeking help from experts on how to best address the debt crisis, with an eye on how it particularly affects students of color.

Cory Booker

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Sen. Cory Booker introduced a bill last year to forgive the debts of teachers with student loans. He hasn't spoken much about general student debt, though, or addressed it with specific policy plans in his 2020 platform.

Booker has offered a proposal that would help prevent student loan debt from piling up further. He's suggested creating savings accounts for each child born in the United States to which the federal government would contribute an amount that would be based on the family's income. That money could then be used to pay for education or a home once the child turned 18.

Kamala Harris

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In a recent interview with Bustle, Sen. Kamala Harris explained how she would address the student debt crisis as president. She promised to fight predatory lenders; protect the gainful employment rule that holds schools accountable for advertising truthful claims about the jobs students can get with their degrees; allow people who hold old, higher-interest loans to refinance them at current rates; and make sure that students' repayment plans take into account their income. She also said that her LIFT Act proposal — which would give families earning less than $100,000 a tax credit — would help many students pay back their loans.

Harris has made it clear that she sees student debt as a major issue and mentioned it in her campaign launch speech. As California's attorney general, she successfully sued Corinthian Colleges over its predatory lending practices and won a $1.1 billion settlement in 2016, including $820 million in relief for students. Earlier this year, Harris joined Warren in writing to almost 100 experts to request advice about fixing racial disparities within the loan debt crisis.

Bernie Sanders

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Sen. Bernie Sanders made addressing the high cost of college a focus of his 2016 platform. At the time, he suggested lowering interest rates on student debt and allowing borrowers to refinance their loans based at those rates. He also brought up forgiving some loans.

The senator's 2020 platform is similar. He wants interest rates for student debt to be be cut in half, according to The Washington Post. Sanders "does not embrace" proposals from the Levy Economics Institute that recommend the United States forgive all student debt, according to The Post.

But he does want to avoid the continued pileup of debt. One of Sanders' best-known proposals is his "College for All" plan, which would abolish undergraduate tuition at all public four-year institutions. Warren, Harris, and Kirsten Gillibrand are co-sponsors of the bill, which the Vermont senator officially introduced in 2017.

Amy Klobuchar

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Unlike some of her colleagues, Sen. Amy Klobuchar is not in favor of free public college at all four-year institutions, though she said at a CNN town hall in February that she approves of abolishing tuition at two-year community colleges (something she's been pushing for since at least 2016). As far as addressing the debt crisis, she said at the town hall that she would work to make it easier for students to refinance their loans.

Klobuchar spearheaded a letter earlier this year pushing the U.S. Department of Education to more aggressively deal with a pileup of federal student loan forgiveness requests from people who borrowed money from predatory institutions. Five other 2020 hopefuls signed on to her letter: Warren, Booker, Harris, Sanders, and Gillibrand.

Kirsten Gillibrand

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Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said last month that passing a bill to allow students to refinance their loans at a 4 percent interest rate would be "one of the first things" she'd do as president. She introduced legislation to do so in 2013, though it was never put up for a vote.

Gillibrand also co-sponsored Warren's refinancing legislation earlier this month.

Tulsi Gabbard

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Rep. Tulsi Gabbard has expressed concern about the student debt crisis. She hasn't yet published a proposal on how to address it, though she did co-sponsor the version of Sanders' College for All Act that came before the House, as well as numerous other bills aimed at making higher education more affordable.

"As tuitions are rising, college students around the country are becoming more and more dependent on the use of loans to help pay for their higher education," she said in a 2017 speech to AAUW Hawaii, per her website. "The pressure of student loan debt on our graduates and our economy has grown far too high to ignore any longer."

Pete Buttigieg

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Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has made it clear that he wants to address the student debt crisis. As one of the few millennial candidates in the race so far, he could have a particular understanding of how the spiking costs of college affect younger adults. Buttigieg has not published a policy proposal for tackling the problem, however.

Julian Castro

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Julian Castro, former mayor of San Antonio and one of President Obama's secretaries of Housing and Urban Development, has not come out with a proposal for addressing student debt, either, but he has said that he wants to work toward making public college tuition free.

"We need to ensure, if we want to be competitive, that every single American who wants a higher education can get one," he said in January, per The Hill.

Jay Inslee

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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee — one of the most recent Democratic candidates to enter the race — hasn't published a student debt proposal. But he has worked on the issue before: Last year, he signed a bill putting in place stronger protections for student borrowers against predatory loaners. He's also proposed guaranteeing financial aid for qualifying college students in his state.

Beto O'Rourke

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Beto O'Rourke, the former representative for Texas' 16th district, has floated a number of ideas for addressing the loan crisis. During his unsuccessful Senate campaign, he proposed forgiving the loans of students who move back to struggling hometowns to serve those communities, and he brought the idea back up this month. A program like this already exists but doesn't help a large number of students, according to Splinter News.

He also proposed loan forgiveness for people who go to teach at a "school in a community that needs you" — another program that already exists in a more limited version, per Splinter.

Donald Trump

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And then, of course, there's the current occupant of the White House. The best indication of what President Donald Trump would do to address the loan burden during a second term is what he's done so far.

Trump appointed Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, who has acknowledged that the nation's student debt is a "crisis" but hasn't addressed it. In fact, DeVos tried to delay an Obama-era loan forgiveness initiative until the courts forced her to comply with it. She wants to restrict the standards around debt cancellation for students who have faced predatory lending. If Trump wins another term, it's likely that DeVos — or whoever serves as education secretary during his second term — will continue pursuing similar policies.

It's still very early in the 2020 race, so there's lots of time for these presidential contenders to get more specific with their plans to address the student debt burden. Look out for candidates delving deeper into the topic as the election draws closer.