Higher Education in a Post-Election Landscape

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  • Trump and Biden propose different solutions to higher ed issues, like college affordability.
  • A Biden presidency could mean free college for some and crackdowns on for-profits.
  • Another Trump term could mean more workforce training opportunities in the private sector.

This November, voters will decide between current Republican President Donald Trump and his opponent, Democrat and former Vice President Joe Biden. These two starkly different candidates outline extremely different plans for higher education, particularly in regard to college affordability and student loan repayment options.

Whereas Biden promises to make college more affordable and provide low-income families with an easier pathway to the middle class, Trump prioritizes vocational training and transforming the student loan system. At the same time, both candidates intend to overhaul student debt forgiveness options.

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As a whole, Trump and Biden hold opposing views on how to best approach complex issues in higher education. How might their proposals impact the future of postsecondary education in the United States? To answer this question, we'll look at the two candidates' plans in four key areas of higher education policy.

Table of Contents

College Affordability

Icon of Joe Biden


Biden previously promoted the idea of offering two years of free community college, but his views have since evolved. Now, he supports making four-year college free for students whose families make below $125,000. Biden would extend this proposal to Dreamers (Americans who immigrated to the U.S. as children) as well as nontraditional and adult students.

The presidential nominee also proposes doubling Pell Grants for low- and moderate-income undergraduates. Currently, the maximum Pell Grant award for one year is $6,345. Under Biden's plan, this award would increase to over $12,000 a year.

Icon of Donald Trump


Unlike his Democratic challenger, Trump does not support making college free. None of his current proposals include reducing the cost of college; however, he has taken some measures to improve the efficacy and reach of federal student aid.

In 2017, the Trump administration passed a law that allowed low-income students to use Pell Grants year-round, meaning they could apply their grants to summer and winter terms as well. Trump has also invested heavily in career and vocational training. In 2019, he proposed new student scholarships for vocational programs, funded by tax credits.

The Future of College Affordability

Biden and Trump lay out directly opposing plans to tackle the college affordability crisis.

Should Trump be reelected, we can anticipate little to no change in higher education's status quo. Four-year college will still be a generally expensive pursuit, particularly for low-income individuals who don't qualify for a full-ride Pell Grant. That said, the student loan process (which we discuss below) could improve slightly.

Should Trump be reelected, we can anticipate little to no change in higher education’s status quo. But if Biden becomes president, more dramatic changes to college affordability could be seen.

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If Biden becomes president, more dramatic changes to college affordability could be seen. How and when those sweeping changes may take place — such as making college free for families under a particular income threshold — remains to be seen. Free-college plans have only gained widespread political traction in recent years, so it's unclear how they'll be put into action.

If a version of Biden's free college plan passes into law, college enrollment and graduation rates could experience a sharp rise, especially among underserved students.

Student Loans

Icon of Joe Biden


Biden's plan for student loans would suspend both loan payments and interest accrual for those with annual salaries of $25,000 or less. For borrowers making above this threshold, Biden offers a more manageable, income-based repayment plan.

Borrowers in the $25,000+ income bracket would pay 5% of their discretionary income (i.e., income left over after paying for taxes, food, and housing). After responsibly making payments for 20 years, student borrowers would then be eligible for 100% loan forgiveness.

Biden would also forgive undergraduate debt for students enrolled at minority-serving institutions, including those whose families make less than $125,000 a year.

Icon of Donald Trump


Biden's income-based repayment (IBR) and forgiveness proposal is similar to Trump's. Whereas Biden would slash the monthly payments to 5% of discretionary income and forgive the remaining debt after 20 years, Trump would require borrowers to pay 12.5% of discretionary income and forgive debt five years sooner, after just 15 years of payments. Under the current repayment system, borrowers must pay 10% of their income for 20 years.

However, Trump's plans do not offer as many opportunities for student debt forgiveness as Biden's do. Instead, the president suggests reforming the many student loan repayment options into one streamlined system.

For example, Trump has proposed ending the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which reduces loan repayments for borrowers working nonprofit or public sector jobs, and rolling it into one overarching plan.

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit this spring, the Trump administration passed the CARES Act, which allowed every federal borrower to stop their monthly loan payments without accruing interest until the end of the year. It remains unclear whether Trump will extend the forbearance period through 2021.

The Future of Student Loans

How long pandemic-related student loan forbearance will last could hinge on who wins the 2020 election. As campuses work to safely reopen, reigniting the economy could take longer, which would continue to hamper students' ability to pay for college.

If Biden becomes president, students can anticipate paying smaller upfront amounts on loans, but for a longer period of time. Low-income students, those attending minority-serving institutions, and those working for nonprofits or the government would benefit the most from Biden's student loan policies.

If Biden becomes president, students can anticipate paying smaller upfront amounts on loans, but for a longer period of time.

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Under Trump, college graduates can expect to pay higher upfront costs on their loans, but for a shorter period of time. Trump also wants to incentivize colleges to help their graduates succeed by putting colleges on the hook for student loan defaults.

Should Trump end the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, college graduates who planned to work in the public sector could still benefit from Trump's unified IBR plan; however, they may have less incentive to engage in public service. By contrast, Biden would increase public sector incentives, promising to forgive $10,000 per year for up to five years for individuals who work for government agencies and nonprofits.

Neither Biden nor Trump supports Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders' push for total student debt forgiveness. Nevertheless, Trump did forgive student loan debt for severely disabled veterans in 2019. Meanwhile, Biden proposes canceling $10,000 of student loan debt for every federal borrower in response to the pandemic.

For-Profit Schools

Icon of Joe Biden


Biden proposes returning to the Obama-era Borrower's Defense Rule, which forgave debt for those who'd been deceived by for-profit colleges. The Democratic candidate also plans to encourage the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to go after private lenders who mislead students — another return to Obama-era policy.

Additionally, Biden's plan would require for-profits to undergo an evaluation to determine their eligibility for federal aid. He intends to get rid of the 90/10 loophole, which rewards for-profit institutions for enrolling veterans in ineffective programs.

Icon of Donald Trump


Trump has backed several plans that strengthen for-profit colleges. In 2019, the Trump administration repealed the gainful employment rule, removing the requirement that for-profits follow through on their career promises to prospective students. A year later, Trump vetoed a bipartisan bill that would have awarded debt forgiveness to veterans duped by for-profit schools.

Passed by the Obama administration, the gainful employment rule would have required for-profit schools to prove students could find jobs and earn an income after graduating. It would have also forced these institutions to reveal graduates' student debt loads and post-graduation salaries.

The Future of For-Profit Schools

For-profit schools have come under fire for overcharging students and awarding them useless credentials. In fact, they're one of the biggest drivers of national student debt. Biden, like former President Barack Obama, says for-profit colleges must be held accountable for their actions.

Biden says for-profit colleges must be held accountable.

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A Biden presidency would not only pressure for-profit schools to stop misleading students, but would also reintroduce key student benefits that had been in place during the Obama administration. Biden aims to protect students by introducing strict rules that all for-profits must follow.

The Trump administration, by contrast, believes for-profits should not be held to a gainful employment standard that isn't enforced for nonprofit private and public colleges. According to Trump's Department of Education, for-profits add a level of competition to higher education.

A second Trump term would mean continued flexibility for for-profit institutions, with unaccredited for-profit schools continuing to face no major barriers to receiving federal funding.

Workforce Training

Icon of Joe Biden


Biden has long advocated for workforce training. He calls for a $50 billion investment in community colleges with an emphasis on forging new apprenticeships and workforce training programs with business partners and unions.

Furthermore, Biden suggests investing $8 billion in community colleges to improve technology on campus as well as health and safety. His plan would create more pathways for high school students to learn career skills and earn college credit.

Icon of Donald Trump


Trump's education platform promotes workforce training as the best college alternative for many students. In an effort to increase the number of apprenticeship programs in the private sector, Trump signed an executive order in 2017 that limited government regulations.

Two years later, Trump included a $5 billion federal tax credit in his proposed budget to fund scholarships for vocational schools and apprenticeships.

Expanding apprenticeships and other workforce training programs has remained a large part of Trump's postsecondary education policy. While the president has cut education budgets elsewhere — including after-school programs and work-study programs — he has signed off on some of the biggest investments in career and technical education programs.

The Future of Workforce Training

Both Biden and Trump see advantages to supporting workforce training — the future of trade schools, apprenticeships, and other alternatives to four-year college will likely remain bright no matter who becomes president.

Both Biden and Trump see advantages to supporting workforce training.

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With Biden, students can expect an increase in government spending, from prekindergarten through adult continuing education. That includes workforce training at two-year colleges, vocational schools, and even high schools.

With Trump, workforce training stands to benefit from generous federal funding, while other educational sectors could continue to see cuts. True to the current Department of Education's more laissez-faire approach, growth in workforce training could center on private-sector opportunities, rather than federally funded vocational partnerships.

Photo Illustration: Jim Watson / Contributor / AFP / Getty Images & ERIC BARADAT / Contributor / AFP / Getty Images

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