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What do the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates think about higher education?

Democrats edu quotes graphic

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the article misquoted Wesley Whistle. Whistle said he he hopes that whatever affordability conversation happens, it iss one that is targeted at helping the students who need a college degree the most. The story has been updated with the correct quote. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for this error. 

Over the past few weeks, multiple Democratic candidates have officially announced their presidential candidacy. Others have formed exploratory committees, and some are still contemplating whether they will run. 

Following high turnout among young voters for the 2018 midterm elections, some candidates have decided to focus on issues that may appeal to the youth, such as having students graduate without debt and establishing tuition-free community colleges.

During the last few months, the Trump administration has been criticized for the small percentage of students that are forgiven under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, and Congressional Democrats introduced legislation to make college more affordable.

Kim Dancy, assistant director of research and policy at the Institute of Higher Education Policy, said Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., changed the idea from free college being an afterthought on the national level to a pressing issue in three years. 

“There had been more targeted and localized efforts at free college long before Sanders proposed the idea in 2016, but he was very effective as a messenger for that platform," she said. 

Sanders, who is considering another presidential run in 2020, has not backed down from his stance on free college circa 2016. On the senator’s website, there is a section entitled “It’s Time to Make College Tuition Free and Debt Free,” which details a six-step plan to achieve this goal.

While Sanders ran on the idea of free college during his 2016 campaign, he faced opposition from other Democratic candidates on his education policy. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, his opponent, initially disagreed with Sanders' free tuition plan on the grounds that students from wealthy families should not go to college for free. Her eventual education plan begins by offering students from families with an annual income of less than $85,000 free tuition at in-state colleges and universities.

Wesley Whistle, an education policy adviser at Third Way, a national think tank, said he sees the discrepancy between the policies of Democratic candidates as positive. 

“It’s good to see that candidates are actually carving out their own lanes on affordability, and you’re not just seeing it to be this free college, because everybody can’t say that and distinguish themselves from one another," Whistle said. 

President Donald Trump has prioritized simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid and the process for applying for student loan servicing.

Democratic candidates for 2020 have made higher education affordability part of their presidential campaigns, including Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn. 

Both Whistle and Dancy said they believe higher education policy needs to receive more attention, and a more nuanced approach needs to be taken than sweeping, overarching messages. The two also said they worry that one-size-fits-all proposals could be extremely dangerous, and instead, a more equitable approach should be targeted to help students in underrepresented groups.

Dancy said campaign policies need to start focusing on the details that matter. 

“Little details such as whether or not you cover student living expenses or books, supplies in the scholarship design and whether you add specific eligibility requirements that may exclude low-income students or students of color matter quite a bit," she said. 

Dancy said politicians are not paying enough attention to the potential implications of what a debt-free college system would mean and are not planning for the increase in college enrollment that could come as a result of these policies. Whistle also said these policies need to be targeted at groups who need them the most. 

“It’s my hope that whatever affordability conversation happens, which I know will (happen), is one that is targeted at helping the students who need a college degree the most," Whistle said.

As the presidential campaigns continue, it is likely that candidates will release more information on their views about higher education policy. 


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