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Where They Stand: Higher Education And Student Debt In The 2020 Campaign

College debt and the cost of higher education are major issues of the 2020 presidential primary. Democratic candidates, and President Trump, have announced a variety of plans, such as free public college or student loan forgiveness. We look at the proposals, and the role of higher education issues in this election. 

Original air date: Wednesday, December 4, 2019. 


  • Tori Berube - Vice President of College Planning & Community Engagement with the NHHEAF (New Hampshire Higher Education Assistance Foundation) Network Organizations.
  • Danielle Douglas-Gabriel - Reporter for the Washington Post, covering student debt. 
  • Ken Ferreira - President of the N.H. Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. He is also an associate vice president for student financial services at Franklin Pierce University. 

Read on for highlights from the conversation. These were pulled from a computer-generated transcript, and may contain errors. 

The Status of the Higher Education Act:

What is the Higher Education Act?

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, reporter for the Washington Post:

This is the primary federal law enacted back in 1965 that really governs all of higher education, primarily the federal lending system that we grant aid is dispersed every few years.
It's reauthorized and oftentimes kind of programs are expanded out or simplified to really simplify these days to to make it more effective for students and families.

What is the argument for overhauling and updating it?

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel:

Every time that the act has been reauthorized, there have been some additions that have added some complexity to the system of law. There are myriad repayment plans for student loans, for instance, lots of forgiveness options.
And some folks feel that all of those additional provisions have kind of created a complexity that confuses families and borrowers. So there are a lot of proposals floating around right now that would want to simplify some of those options to make it easier for people to understand.

How is this playing out in p0litics?

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel:

There are more conservative bands that would like to see the government kind of reduce its role within federal lending and kind of in higher education overall. And then there are others who feel that there is a bigger role for the federal government to play in the space.

Ken Ferreira, President of the N.H. Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators:

I think that there is bipartisan agreement to simplify the process, so simplify everything from filing the FAFSA... as well as simplifying the aid types that are awarded to students that are funded by federal the federal Pell Grant program, for instance. ...And when I think about the students that I work with at Franklin Pierce, as well as a volunteer through the New Hampshire Financial Aid Association, I think that students and parents are looking for that simplification.

The Trump Administration's Push for Transparency and Changes in Loan Payment Caps:

What is the college score card?

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel:

This is a portal that was started under the Obama administration and allows for families to look at the outcomes as well as the costs of various schools.
The Trump administration has expanded that quite, quite a bit and allows for more program level data so you can see what different students from different majors potentially are earning after school. And that's that's very useful in terms of transparency.
The thing is that there's a lot of research that shows that even with that armed with that information, people still make some similar borrowing decisions.

What has the administration announced they want to do to change monthly repayment caps?

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel:

[Currently], it's about 10 percent of the party's discretionary income, but you pay for a longer amount of time than what the Trump administration is proposing. They're proposing for a period of 15 years for undergraduate students and for graduate students. Actually, they wanted to increase it to 30 years.
Right now, it's at 20 years, some 25 years for one of the older plans, and then at that point, whatever is left over would be forgiven.

Is loan forgiveness taxable income?

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel:

Yeah, [with] the current plan, it would be taxable income unless you are receiving public service loan forgiveness, which is set aside for public sector workers. But the Income-Based plans that exist for everybody else - any portion of that debt that's forgiven would be taxable as it is.

Democratic Proposal: Tuition-Free Public College:

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel:

Senator Elizabeth Warren [along with Senator Bernie Sanders] has embraced the idea of tuition free public college. But if we have to be very clear about the terms of what these plans mean when they say free college, they mean tuition being covered. And oftentimes that means that the federal government kicks in money after scholarships and Pell grants have been applied.
Now, oftentimes, that tends to exclude lower income students who are already receiving the maximum award for Pell Grants so that their tuition is covered. But they're still on the hook for transportation costs, for housing costs.
A lot of the candidates have proposed increasing the federal Pell Grants to cover a greater percentage of those costs, to essentially make college tuition at college more affordable for more people. But again, a lot of the plans that are out there are based upon existing state plans that don't often help the students who need it.

Tori Berube, Vice President of College Planning & Community Engagement with NHHEAF:

The devil is in the details. So is it free tuition? Is it free college? Is everybody eligible? Is it low and middle income people who are eligible? So, again, reading and understanding each of these candidates and their platform and the details that are behind it are really important because I think those soundbites that people hear, ‘Free college for everyone,’ Well, no, that's not what he said.

Democratic Proposal: Limited Free College and More Refinancing Options:

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel:

Senator Klobuchar, [Pete Buttigieg], as well as former Vice President Biden also support limited free college in the sense of keeping it to community colleges, two years of the government covering tuition in that respect.
...The thing is that, you know, Senator Sanders and others have argued that if you would get larger buy in for these sorts of programs if you include more people who could benefit. So that's the idea of offering free college to everyone. And it also kind of plays on the idea that higher education is a societal good, not an individual consumer benefit.

Democratic Proposals: Managing Student Loan Debt:

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel:

[Senator Warren] is also tapping into a general discontent with the growing mounting student loan debt and also realizing that, I think as other candidates have, that universities and colleges need more resources in order to lower the cost of college for students.
But I think one criticism of many of the Democratic plans is that there's not enough focus on how to get schools to address rising costs. Certainly for public universities and colleges, state disinvestment has had a big impact on their budgets. And as a result, they've had to raise tuition in many cases.

Free Tuition On The State Level:

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel:

There are about 19 states right now that have some form of tuition free college and they run the political gamut.
And I think a lot of that shows that governments, legislatures are very concerned about making sure their workforce is educated for the jobs of today and tomorrow.
And even if we don't necessarily see this take shape on the federal form, we are seeing greater momentum on this on a state level, which is really, really shows how important higher education has become.

Democratic Proposals: Wraparound Support for Students:

Danielle Douglas-Gabriel:

I'm interested to see candidates address some of the wraparound services that help students graduate. Getting them into college is great, but ensuring that they may have their child care needs addressed or food insecurity or housing insecurity, things that can derail from graduating and completing. I love our plan, but talk about the realities of those sorts of services in increasing graduation rates.

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