College students already have a lot of decisions to make: Where will you go to school? What will you study? And, perhaps most pressingly, how will you pay for it? To answer that last question, it’s important to carefully consider another menu of options: the US presidential candidates.
Although their policies can seem intangible and abstract—especially months before you line up to vote—the 2020 presidential elections stand to impact the American student body in a wide variety of ways, not the least of which is finances.
Whether you’re about to apply, currently in college, or watching graduation fade in the rear-view, here’s what you need to know about how the 2020 presidential candidates could change the way you pay for college.
Student loan forgiveness
Student loan forgiveness is a hot-button issue for both recent graduates with loans and current students taking out loans. Changes to the rules of student loan forgiveness programs can wreak havoc on even the best plans for paying for your education.
Generally speaking, the candidates’ approaches toward student loan forgiveness are split down party lines: Democrats seek to expand forgiveness programs, while Republicans are more apt to pare them down or repeal them.
For instance, President Donald Trump has proposed a repeal of the Public Student Loan Forgiveness program (PSLF), which helps students in select nonprofit and government fields seek loan forgiveness after 10 years of service and monthly payments. However, Trump has also signed orders to automatically forgive federal student loan debt for disabled veterans, and his Republican opponent, Bill Weld, has spoken about expanding PSLF, especially for public school teachers.
Democratic candidates have proposed more dramatic changes to student loan forgiveness. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are known for their mass approaches to student loan forgiveness, with Sanders promising to cancel all outstanding US student loans regardless of income level, and Warren offering partial forgiveness even to high-income families who earn up to $250,000.
Other Democrats want to expand or simplify existing programs like PSLF or endorse refinancing options with lower rates. Many are also focused on making college more affordable in the future, such as Pete Buttigieg’s plan to make public college tuition-free for 80% of families earning up to $100,000.
Pell Grants are a type of federal student financial aid that don’t require repayment. They’re awarded to students who can demonstrate exceptional need and don’t yet have an undergraduate degree.
The majority of Democratic candidates wish to expand Pell Grants. Warren suggested adding an additional $100 billion to the program and expanding eligibility requirements to make them accessible to more students. Sanders aims to achieve his plan for debt-free college education with both a Pell Grant expansion and a requirement for states and tribes to cover tuition costs for low-income students, and Buttigieg has mentioned an expansion of Pell Grants as well.
Joe Biden has also proposed relaxing Pell Grant eligibility requirements, offering to allow community college students access to the funds. Trump, on the other hand, has aimed to cut Pell Grants, including a bid to utilize some of the funds for a second moon landing for NASA.
Free higher education
A totally free college education sounds like a pipe dream to America’s debt-burdened students, but it’s been proposed in one form or another by more than one Democratic candidate. Sanders is famous for his promise to eliminate college tuition at all public universities, colleges, and trade schools. Warren has also promised to “make free college truly universal” at both two- and four-year public schools.
Other Democrats have offered their own more limited ideas for free higher education. Biden and Amy Klobuchar have both proposed some form of free community college, and Buttigieg plans to make public colleges tuition-free for a large percentage of low- to middle-income families.
Related: Colleges With No Tuition
Income-driven repayment plans
Income-driven repayment plans allow students with federal loan aid to make payments that scale with their earnings. In some cases, borrowers may be eligible to have no monthly payment at all with their current salaries. Presently, the government offers four types of income-driven repayment plans, each with its own unique terms and benefits. But some of the 2020 presidential candidates propose to change the way these programs work.
Trump has discussed a single income-driven repayment plan, which would cap monthly payments at 12.5% of the borrower’s income and offer student loan forgiveness after 15 or 30 years for undergraduate and graduate students, respectively.
Biden has also proposed to simplify these plans, with the added caveat that borrowers earning less than $25,000 would be eligible for no monthly payments without accruing additional interest debt. Many students who opt for income-driven repayment plans struggle to make progress on their principal amount since low monthly payments barely cover high interest costs.
Regardless of how students bear the responsibility of paying for college, federal funding goes a long way toward supporting robust educational programs and making those programs more accessible. This is especially true for institutions with discrepancies in public funding, such as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Funding can also be routed toward public programs that help students seek alternatives to a traditional college education, such as trade schools. Sanders, Biden, and Klobuchar have all voiced a desire to increase support and investment in HBCUs.
During his tenure, Trump renewed the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, which is the main federal funding source supporting career and technical programs for high school students and graduates.
Get out and vote
No matter what side you stand on, making the effort to get out and vote is not only a civic duty—it’s a moment that can change the landscape of your financial future.
Scholarships and grants can also affect how much you pay out-of-pocket for college! Find them with our Scholarship Search tool.