The 2020 Candidates on Higher Education

Photo by Kimberly Farmer on Unsplash

By Maria Valle and Reyna McKinnon

With higher education costs and student debt reaching record highs, nearly all 2020 Democratic Primary candidates have plans to make college more affordable. We took a look at all the primary candidate’s policies on higher education  and summarized our findings below. 

*Note: Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Mike Bloomberg, and Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the Democratic primary race before the publication of this article.


  • Sanders: Tuition free college for all public universities, trade schools, historical black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and Minority Serving Institutions.
  • Biden: Two years of debt free community college. Funding support for HBCUs.  
  • *Warren: Remove tuition and fees at all public two-year and four-year colleges in America.
  • *Bloomberg: Tuition free community college. “Debt-free” four-year college for low-income students (families must make less than $30,000/year). 
  • *Buttigieg: Tuition free public college for families that make up to $100,000 and some families with multiple children. Tuition subsidies for families that make up to $150,000. 
  • *Klobuchar: Tuition free community college. 
  • Trump: No policy on tuition free college. 


  • Sanders: Cancel $1.6 trillion of student loan debt held by 45 million Americans. Cap student loan interest rates at 1.88% going forward.
  • Biden: Cut undergraduate federal student loans in half by making income-based repayment programs simpler and more generous. Improve Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program so that graduates who work in the public sector for at least five years actually get $10,000 in debt relief.   
  • *Warren: Cancel $50,000 of student loan debt for Americans with incomes lower than $100,000. Phase out debt cancellation gradually for those with income between $100,000 and $250,000. Plan will cancel some debt for 95% of Americans with student debt.
  • *Bloomberg: Cap monthly loan payments at 5% of discretionary income. Forgive $57,000 of remaining loans after 20 years of payment progress. 
  • *Buttigieg: Cancel debt for borrowers who attended unaffordable for-profit colleges. Make public servant loan forgiveness start earlier and cancel debt completely after 10 years. End wage garnishment on defaulted student loan debt for low-income borrowers. 
  • *Klobuchar: Lower interest rates on student loans. Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program would be available for borrowers in “in demand” occupations. 
  • Trump: Ease student loans for disabled veterans. Cap student loan payments at 12.5% of borrowers’ income and allow for student loan forgiveness after 15 years for undergraduates and 30 years for graduates. 


  • Sanders: Since his proposal makes college tuition free expanding Pell Grants would cover non tuition related costs. 
  • Biden: Double the maximum value of Pell Grant and expand eligibility to a middle-class. 
  • *Warren: Invest $100 billion over the next ten years in Pell Grants and expand eligibility to ensure lower-income and middle-class students graduate debt free. 
  • *Bloomberg: Double Pell Grants awards. 
  • *Buttigieg: Invest $120 billion in Pell Grants to ensure grant awards keep up with inflation to help low-income students cover costs beyond tuition. 
  • *Klobuchar: Double Pell Grants from $6,000 to $12,000 a year and expand eligibility to include families who make up to $100,000 a year.
  • Trump: No policy on Pell Grant expansion.


  • Sanders: Funded by making Wall Street pay for it by implementing a tax that will raise $2.4 trillion over the next ten years. 
  • Biden: Funded by (1) eliminating the stepped-up basis loophole, which means Americans who inherit property would pay more taxes and (2) capping the itemized deductions the wealthiest Americans can take to 28%.
  • *Warren: Will cover the cost with revenue from taxing the wealthiest 75,000 families in the country whose fortunes are of $50 million or more.
  • *Bloomberg: Would cost $700 billion. 
  • *Buttigieg: Proposes increasing capital gains taxes for the top 1% and getting rid of Trump’s tax cuts for the most wealthy.
  • *Klobuchar: Proposes (1) raising taxes on capital gains and dividends for people in the two highest income tax brackets and (2) for those who make more than $1 million to pay at least a 30% minimum tax rate.
  • Trump: No policy on funding college.


By Maria Valle

Before Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign in 2016, the idea of free college was not discussed in the United States. This idea sounded impossible, even though several developed countries have this policy. Now we can argue that perhaps it is attainable.

I strongly believe in the power of higher education but was hesitant to buy into the idea of college for all because it sounded politically and economically infeasible. Now my opinion has shifted. If we increase taxes on the very rich, it will be financially feasible, but due to the current gridlock in Washington DC, it is politically improbable. 

Despite where this proposal currently stands, it has the potential to make higher education more equitable and accessible. At the moment, a lot of students struggle to afford four-year public institutions in California like UC Berkeley. To make ends meet, they juggle multiple jobs, skip meals because they are short on cash, and live 3, 4, or 5 people to a room. Then, once they graduate, they are burdened with loans and struggle to survive on low-paying jobs. What if what the Democratic presidential candidates proposed was implemented? It would be such a different reality for California’s students. It would make a college education affordable for students from low and middle income families. Students would no longer be struggling with food or housing insecurity. They would graduate debt-free ready to take on the “real world” without the pressure of loans. Although this sounds like a dream, it might not be in the future.

Maria Valle and Reyna McKinnon are first-year MPP students at the UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy. 

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal, the Goldman School of Public Policy, or UC Berkeley.