Here's What 6 Top Candidates Are Saying About Student Loan Debt

August 10th 2015

Alex Mierjeski

For young voters, college affordability and student debt relief are top financial concerns, when it comes to policy issues and the 2016 presidential election. Despite that, however, there was virtually no mention of either subjects in last week's much-anticipated Republican debates.

Americans today possess around $1.2 trillion in student debt, which has led to delayed major life decisions and economic drivers like buying a house or a car, getting married, and having children. For many, radical stances on reforming the higher education system and restructuring how we pay for college will be a major decider in what candidate to vote for, and whether or not to vote at all. At ATTN:, we're closely watching how each candidate will approach this issue. Here are some of the top candidates' stances on student debt and college affordability so far.

Hillary Clinton

On Monday, Hillary Clinton, the leading Democratic hopeful, unveiled a new plan to address college affordability and student debt, saying that for students pursuing secondary education under her administration, "costs won't be a barrier," CNN reported. Under what she called the "New College Compact," a ten-year plan costing an estimated $350 billion, states would be incentivized with federal grants for providing "no-loan tuition at four-year public colleges and universities," and students already saddled with debt would be given the option to refinance at lower rates. The plan would also absorb President Obama's tuition-free community college plan.

According to the compact, the cost of college would be covered by individuals, the colleges themselves, as well as federal and state governments. The AP reports that the plan proposes to offset costs in part by capping itemized tax deductions for wealthy families—things like charitable contributions and mortgage interest—which the Treasury Department estimates would raise more than $600 billion over ten years.

"College is supposed to help people achieve their dreams. But more and more, paying for college is actually pushing people's dreams further out of reach," said a campaign fact sheet. "It's a betrayal of everything college is supposed to represent—and everything families have worked so hard to achieve."

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Bernie Sanders

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders' plan for college affordability, which he unveiled in May, goes further than Clinton's compact does: It guarantees tuition-free education at public universities through increased taxes levied on Wall Street. Sanders, a self-describe Democratic socialist, is running as a Democrat. The plan, outlined in the College for All Act, would cover around $70 billion per year, the cost of total tuition at public colleges and universities today, according to the bill's fact sheet. The federal government would be responsible for covering around 70 percent of that cost, while states would make up the remaining 30 percent.

"We have to make sure that every qualified American in this country who has the ability and desire to go to college is able to go to college, regardless of the income of his or her family," Sanders said in May. "It is totally unacceptable that millions of college graduates cannot afford to buy their first home or their first car because of the outrageously high interest rates they are paying on student debt."

Under the proposal, schools would be prohibited from using federal funds to bolster salaries for top level administration or to invest in non-academic buildings like sports arenas. Also, student loan interest rates would be cut using a pre-2006 formula, which would cut undergraduate rates in half, from 4.32 percent to 2.32 percent. The bill caps interest rates at 8.25 percent. Additionally, the bill would give students the option to refinance their loans to interest rates available to current students, as well as providing expanded federal work study opportunities, and simplifying the student aid application process. The costs would be covered by a "Robin Hood" tax on certain types of Wall Street trading––0.5 percent tax on stock trades; 0.1 percent on bonds; 0.005 percent on derivatives—that would cover the $750 billion the plan would cost over ten years.

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Jeb Bush

Jeb Bush, a Republican frontrunner, has yet to outline a clear position on financing higher education and addressing student loan debt, though his record does not indicate the former Florida Gov. has any plans to wipe out tuition or significantly restructure student debt.

As the Huffington Post reported, Bush, a champion of Common Core, has called for the nation's universities to provide more accountability for students and parents looking at success rates for certain programs. Loan programs, he said in March, should be leveraged "for more accountability so at least parents and students know which universities are really fulfilling their mission of getting students out of college with a degree that will allow them to have a job," Greenville Online reported. Federal student loan programs do more to finance the construction of new buildings and facilitate "prestigious programs" that universities can "feel good about," rather than significantly shaking up the higher education system, he said in March. Bush has previously called for a move from a "provider-driven model to a consumer-driven one," which includes a focus on online programs that encompass an international student body.

Following the release of Clinton's New College Compact Monday, Bush responded in a statement lamenting the burden her plan would set on taxpayers' shoulders. "We don't need more top-down Washington solutions that will raise the cost of college even further and shift the burden to hardworking taxpayers," he said. "We need to change the incentives for colleges with fresh policies that result in more individualization and choices, drive down overall costs, and improve the value of a college degree, which will help lead to real, sustained four-percent economic growth," Bush said, adding that more "pro-growth economic policies" would create jobs for graduates instead of leading them on "the path of declining workforce participation and access to jobs."

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Marco Rubio

At a policy speech in Chicago earlier last month, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) decried the current higher-education "cartel," and called for a revamped accreditation system that would allow lower-cost education providers to compete with more established universities for students' business. With the current four-year system, Rubio said that "many young people are graduating with mountains of debt for degrees that will not lead to jobs, and many who need higher education the most—such as single parents and working adults—are left with few options that fit their schedules and budgets," Rubio, himself saddled with student debt, said in Chicago.

As Reuters reported, Rubio's vision would allow students to repay loans tailored to their postgraduate incomes, allow private investors to bankroll students' tuition and get a percentage back upon graduation, and step up transparency on projected salaries between colleges and potential students looking into programs.

Like Bush, Rubio bashed Clinton's Compact plan Monday, assailing its focus on investing in what he calls an outdated system. "All that she's talking about is 'let's raise taxes and let's pour a bunch of money into a 20th-century outdated model,'" Rubio said on Fox News. "This is the thing they always do on the left—she has to figure out who to raise taxes on," he said. Rubio proposed more alternatives to traditional university models that would fit the needs of modern working-class people, basing awards on demonstrated learning as opposed to time spent in the classroom, the New York Times reports.

Scott Walker

The Republican Wisconsin Gov. has yet to outline a comprehensive stance on higher education reform, though Scott Walker caused controversy when he signed a state budget earlier this summer that cut $250 million from the university system, a figure that was reduced from the $300 million he proposed in his 2015 budget. ATTN: reported earlier in July that Walker also cut the Wisconsin Technical College System by 30 percent, signed a bill weakening professors' tenure protections, reduced funding to Wisconsin's financial aid program, the Wisconsin Grants, and remained silent on a proposal that would allow students to refinance loans at lower interest rates.

While Walker has cut university budgets, he has also frozen in-state tuition for the University of Wisconsin system in recent years, and also proposed another two year freeze last year, preventing the school from making up budget cuts with more tuition money.

Donald Trump

In an interview with the Hill last month, Donald Trump said he was well-suited to help debt-saddled young people by promising jobs if he were elected president. In the same interview, Trump criticized the federal government for collecting profit from federal 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," he said. The job-creation approach is central to Trump's debt-relief plan. In a Q & A in April at Simpson College in Iowa, he said that outsourced jobs from Mexico and China could be reclaimed to help the jobs market and allow students to pay off their debts.

As ATTN: reported previously, Trump was also involved in a 2013 lawsuit brought by New York Attorney General Eric Schnieiderman for misleading students enrolled in his de-facto for-profit college, Trump University.

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