Biden vs. Trump on Education
Comparing the Candidates' Plans for Schools and Colleges
- The presidential candidates' education plans sit at opposite ends of the policy spectrum.
- Trump's Dept. of Education values vocational training and streamlined student borrowing.
- Biden proposes increasingly progressive plans for free college and debt forgiveness.
The outcome of the November presidential election could mean big changes for higher education. Under President Donald Trump, the Department of Education cut some budgets and eliminated others, emphasized state authority, and pushed vocational training rather than college for all.
This conservative approach to education could be overhauled by a Democratic administration. Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden — the last centrist to adopt Senator Bernie Sanders' free college and student debt forgiveness plans — now promises versions of both.
In addition to college affordability, a number of key education issues hinge on the election. Trump's and Biden's education policies include opposing ideas about federally funded programs, how schools investigate sexual assault, and what campus reopenings should look like in 2021.
Biden vs. Trump: Key Education Policy Points
School Reopenings and COVID-19
Trump and Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are clear about when schools should open: now. Both have threatened school districts and colleges with the loss of federal funding if they don't return to in-person learning. But Trump's Department of Education leaves how schools reopen up to individual jurisdictions.
Biden would amp up funding to make schools safer. The Democratic nominee outlined a plan to put $200 billion toward reconfiguring schools and classrooms to improve ventilation and allow for social distancing.
At all education levels, administrators, teachers, and parents continue to weigh the health risks of reopening against the risks of staying closed, which include learning loss and the lack of student access to resources and nutrition. While Trump and Biden push different paths toward reopening — one driven by district-by-district solutions and one driven by federal oversight and spending — both say school needs to be in-person.
Student Debt and College Affordability
When the economy contracts, states disproportionately cut college and university budgets, causing tuition to rise. The $1.6 trillion student debt crisis sounds an alarm for students and families as well as college educators, many of whom say higher education is overdue for an overhaul.
According to education policy analyst Kevin Carey, "A fundamentally different policy architecture is needed for American higher education, and the best time to build it is now." Biden is on board with progressive free-college plans, though they do not address deeper issues of college expenses and outcomes. Meanwhile, Trump's education policy does not directly include a plan to make higher education more affordable.
Biden is on board with progressive free-college plans, while Trump’s education policy does not directly include a plan to make higher education more affordable.
Biden gradually embraced Sanders' plans to make college "free" — meaning it would be subsidized by a combination of federal and state funding. Now, he proposes free four-year college for students with total family incomes up to $125,000, as well as debt forgiveness for all two- and four-year public undergraduates whose families earn up to $125,000 a year.
Previously, Biden proposed to lighten debtors' loads with income-based repayment plans. Trump offers a debt forgiveness plan very similar to Biden's original plan. The Trump administration suggests consolidating all income-based repayment plans into one. After 15 years of payments through an income-driven plan, remaining debt would then be forgiven.
Trump would also cap the amount students can borrow and have colleges share the risk of students defaulting on their loans.
Community Colleges / Career and Technical Education
When Trump proposed a $5.6 billion cut to the Department of Education earlier this year, he made an exception for vocational schools. He called for a nearly $900 million increase in career and technical education (CTE) funding. DeVos said it was "perhaps the largest increase in CTE ever."
Biden also values community colleges and vocational training. Rather than make four-year college free, Biden previously proposed two years of free community college. Biden's education policy gradually moved left of center, picking up on the campaign promises of his fellow progressive candidates; however, his policies still include plans to fund CTE.
Biden wants to see "shop classes" return to middle schools and high schools, and pushes for innovative partnerships between schools and employers in order to equip more students for careers by graduation.
Universal Pre-K and K-12 Education
Trump and Biden stand on nearly opposite ends of the K-12 education policy spectrum. While Biden pushes for big investments, Trump espouses state authority and has repeatedly moved to reduce federal funding and oversight for K-12 education.
As part of the effort to shrink the federal government's role, Trump's Department of Education cut the budget for some federal programs for underserved students, and encouraged states to enlarge their own programming.
Policy researchers at the Brookings Institution say that federal after-school programs continue to be funded based on hopeful thinking, rather than evidence of student outcomes. The Afterschool Alliance disagrees, pointing to instances of improved classroom behavior, test scores, and grade promotion.
While Biden pushes for big investments, Trump has repeatedly moved to reduce federal funding for K-12 education.
Biden's running mate, Senator Kamala Harris, is a proponent of after-school programs, saying they give low-income students and parents more opportunities. As senator, she introduced a bill that would extend the U.S. public school day to 6 p.m.
Biden, too, proposes extending school services to serve low-income students and their families. His education plan would connect low-income parents with early childhood development specialists, establish universal pre-K, and turn school campuses into community wellness centers.
Trump and Biden's K-12 policies also diverge on charter schools. Both Trump and DeVos want to give parents choice over their children's schools by allowing federal funds to follow students to whatever school they want to attend. By contrast, Biden has repeatedly criticized charter schools, saying they fracture federal funds and improperly benefit for-profit charter schools.
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Photo Illustration: Jim Watson / Contributor / AFP / Getty Images & ERIC BARADAT / Contributor / AFP / Getty Images