The Democratic Debates: Political Issues That Affect College Students

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In late June, Democratic presidential contenders assembled on a crowded debate stage to outline both competing and complementary policy agendas. In many ways, the debates were geared toward the next generation of American voters whose support hinges on issues like student debt, climate change, and gun control.

Different Takes on Student Loan Forgiveness and Free College for All

Proposals for student debt forgiveness and free college for all, which BestColleges discussed in May, are foremost on the minds of American college students, but candidates disagree on the appropriate scope of these ideas. In April, Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts was the first to provide a specific plan. Her proposal would cancel up to $50,000 in student loan debt for Americans making under $250,000 a year, which some left-leaning pundits criticized as a subsidy for the well-off. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont recently went one step further by calling for forgiveness of all student loan debt, regardless of assets or income level, and said the program would be paid for by a tax on Wall Street. Private loans would be included in Sanders' proposal, which means the U.S. government would be liable for billions of dollars to private lenders. Both Sanders and Warren back free college for all, which would eliminate tuition at public colleges and universities.

Major Candidate Stances on the Student Debt Crisis

Bernie Sanders

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  • Eliminate tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities, tribal colleges, community colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeship programs
  • Cancel all existing student debt, including private loans
  • Expand Pell Grants to cover living expenses for low-income students
  • Cap student loan interest rates
  • Triple-fund the Federal Work-Study Program
  • Provide more funding for historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions
  • Fund programs through tax on Wall Street

Elizabeth Warren

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  • Cancel $50,000 in student loan debt for household incomes less than $100,000
  • Provide substantial debt cancellation for household incomes between $100,000 and $250,000
  • Make private student loan debt eligible for cancellation
  • Provide free public higher education for every American

Kamala Harris

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  • Refinance high-interest loans to lower rates
  • Expand Income-Based Repayment programs
  • Crack down on for-profit schools and lenders
  • Offer free community college
  • Provide debt-free education at four-year public colleges
  • Expand Pell Grants

Pete Buttigieg

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  • Provide free college for lower-income families
  • Expand Pell Grants to help with living expenses and keep up with inflation
  • Charge zero college tuition for middle-income families

Joe Biden

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  • Expand dual-enrollment programs so high school students can earn college credits
  • Make community college free
  • Freeze student debt until income exceeds $25,000 a year
  • Streamline the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program

Cory Booker

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  • Make community college tuition free
  • Refinance existing student loans at lower interest rates
  • Provide savings accounts for all babies born in the U.S. (up to $4,000 for lower-income families) that can be spent on higher education
  • Forgive student loan debt for teachers and expand the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program

Amy Klobuchar

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  • Refinance student loans at lower rates
  • Offer loan forgiveness for in-demand occupations
  • Expand Pell Grants
  • Offer tuition-free community college and technical certifications

Sources: Biden for President; Cory 2020; Pete for America; Kamala Harris for the People; Amy for America; Bernie 2020; Medium; Forbes; NBC News

Despite widespread agreement on the need to provide student debt relief, some candidates disagree with universal student loan forgiveness. During the debates, Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, criticized Warren's and Sander's sweeping proposals because they wouldn't narrowly address college affordability for lower-income Americans.

"I do get concerned about paying for college for rich kids," Klobuchar said. "But I think my plan is a good one. And my plan would be to, first of all, make community college free and make sure that everyone else besides that top percentile gets help with their education."

Noting his own six-figure student loan debt, Buttigieg expressed a similar point of view: "I support free public colleges for low-income and middle-income families. I just don't believe it makes sense for working-class families to subsidize tuition even for billionaires. The children of the wealthiest of Americans can pay at least a little bit of tuition."

Unlike Warren and Sanders, who see college education as a public good like national defense or clean air, Buttigieg suggests college education shouldn't be a litmus test for success in American society: "Yes, it needs to be more affordable in this country to go to college. It also needs to be more affordable in this country to not go to college. You should be able to live well, afford rent, be generous to your church and Little League, whether you went to college or not."

Former Vice President Joe Biden emphasized the need to improve K-12 education and proposed that community college should be tuition-free. He added that no one should have to pay off student debt until they make more than $25,000 a year. "Their debt is frozen, no interest payment until they get beyond that," Biden said. "We can't put people in a position where they aren't able to go on and move on."

Candidates Largely Agree on Climate Change Action

While President Trump believes climate change is a hoax, almost half of Americans ages 18 to 29 think climate change is a crisis that demands urgent action, according to a spring 2019 poll from the Harvard Institute of Politics. Only 16% of young Americans disagree with that assessment.

Although almost every Democratic candidate supports major action on climate change — 20 of them even endorse a debate devoted exclusively to climate policy — Governor Jay Inslee of Washington state has emerged as the only candidate to make the issue the focal point of his campaign. "We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change," he said. "And we are the last that can do something about it. Our towns are burning. Our fields are flooding. Miami is inundated."

Promoting an "evergreen economy for America," Inslee envisions a clean-energy future that would create eight million jobs over the next decade. He proposes a $9 trillion investment in American industries, infrastructure, skilled labor, and new technology development that will mitigate the effects of climate change. New standards would also aim for 100% carbon-neutral energy by 2030.

Major Candidate Stances on Climate Change Solutions
Candidate Rejoin Paris Agreement End Fossil Fuel Subsidies Price on Carbon Ban Fracking Ban Fossil Fuel Exports
de Blasio  
Source: The Washington Post

Former Congressman Beto O'Rourke of Texas outlined a $5 trillion plan for net-zero emissions by 2050 — a less ambitious timeline than Inslee's proposal. Much of this money would facilitate clean-energy infrastructure, research, and enforcement of new regulations and efficiency standards.

On points of agreement, The Washington Post reports that all the Democratic candidates endorse reentering the Paris Climate Accord, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and ending leasing of federal lands for fossil fuel extraction. Candidates are less certain about a carbon tax; Warren has only stated she's open to the idea, and Sanders' commitment to carbon pricing has wavered recently.

On the debate stage, Buttigieg said "aggressive and ambitious measures" were necessary to combat climate change. "It's why we need to do a carbon tax and dividend. But I would propose we do it in a way that is rebated out to the American people in a progressive fashion so that most Americans are made more than whole." So far, no other candidate has proposed rebating a carbon tax, a model that has succeeded elsewhere; in the Canadian province of British Columbia, for example, a popular carbon tax is offset by proportional reductions in personal income and corporate taxes.

Differing Responses on Gun Control

School shootings are a flashpoint in the debate surrounding gun control in the United States. A 2018 poll by the Harvard Institute of Politics found that 64% of 18- to 29-year-olds believe gun control laws in the United States should be more strict. Fifty-eight percent want a ban on assault weapons, with 76% of self-identified Democrats supporting a ban.

When asked whether he would support a gun buyback program, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey pinpointed the fear American students increasingly have in relation to gun violence: "For those that have not been directly affected, they're tired of living in a country where their kids go to school to learn about reading, writing, and arithmetic, and how to deal with an active shooter in their school."

Senator Kamala Harris of California was blunt about gun control on the debate stage: "I will require the ATF to take the licenses of gun dealers who violate the law. And I will ban by executive order the importation of assault weapons," she said. "There have been plenty of good ideas from members of the United States Congress. There has been no action. As president, I will take action."

Major Candidate Stances on Gun Control
Candidate Universal Background Check Ban Assault Weapons Buyback of Assault Weapons National Gun Licensing
Sources: Politico; The Washington Post

Several candidates, some of whom are not listed in the table above, remain reluctant to give their official positions on various gun control issues. When asked whether she supported the federal government taking guns away from the American public, Warren said, "What I think we need to do is we need to treat it like a serious research problem, which we have not done. You know, guns in the hands of a collector who's had them for decades, who's never fired them, who takes safety seriously, that's very different from guns that are sold and turned over quickly."

Biden flexed his gun control bona fides, saying he was responsible for getting the 1994 Brady Bill — which mandated federal background checks for firearm purchases — passed in the U.S. Senate. Biden also backed a failed assault weapon ban in 2013 and headed President Obama's task force on gun violence.

Difficult Choices for Students in 2020

College students in America, particularly those who intend to vote in the Democratic primaries, have difficult choices to make in the lead-up to the 2020 election. While the candidates largely agree on student voter issues such as climate change, gun control and the college affordability crisis have invited different policy proposals.

Stay tuned as BestColleges continues to cover student political issues and activism related to the 2020 election.

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