education

How should the government subsidize public four-year college?

Specifically for middle- and low-income families

Many Democrats are proposing free or debt-free college for less-well-off students.

Should be free

Should be free

Pete Buttigieg

Mayor, South Bend, Ind.

Buttigieg's campaign website said he will make “public tuition affordable for all and completely free at lower incomes — combined with a large increase in Pell Grants that provides for basic living expenses and keeps up with inflation. Middle-income families at public colleges will pay zero tuition.” During the first Democratic debate, Buttigieg said, “I just don’t believe it makes sense to ask working-class families to subsidize even the children of billionaires. I think the children of the wealthiest Americans can pay at least a little bit of tuition.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg

Julian Castro

Former mayor, San Antonio

“Eliminate tuition at public colleges, universities, community colleges, and technical and vocational schools, breaking the work-school tug of war,” Castro's education plan said. “Share the financing of tuition costs with state governments and provide incentives to reduce the cost of college programs including fees, discourage underinvestment into public education by states. Require accountability and standards that include fair pay for all employees and staff, including adjuncts and non-faculty staff, and respect for their right to join a union.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Julian Castro
Castro

Tulsi Gabbard

U.S. representative, Hawaii

Gabbard co-sponsored the College for All Act, which would make four-year college free for middle-class and lower-income families and community college free for all students, and would lower student loan interest rates.

Candidate positions highlighted
Tulsi Gabbard
Gabbard

Jay Inslee (Dropped out)

Governor, Washington state

Inslee is no longer running for president. “Governor Inslee’s approach will include making attendance at public college and community college tuition and debt-free for students from lower-income and middle-class families,” Inslee's campaign website said.

Candidate positions highlighted
Jay Inslee
Inslee

Tim Ryan

U.S. representative, Ohio

“As President, I would have the federal government allow students to attend 4-year college without taking on debt. I would ensure this is available to everyone,” Ryan told The Post. He cosponsed the College for All Act, which would make four-year college free for middle-class and lower-income families and community college free for all students, and would lower student loan interest rates.

Candidate positions highlighted
Tim Ryan
Ryan

Bernie Sanders

U.S. senator, Vermont

Sanders “believes the right to a good and free education is a basic human right,” a campaign spokesperson told The Post. “That means we have got to make public colleges and universities, tribal colleges, community colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeship programs tuition and debt-free and cancel all student debt,” Sanders told The Post. “Every young person, regardless of their family income, the color of their skin, disability, or immigration status should have the opportunity to attend college. ... If we are to succeed as a nation, public colleges and universities must be tuition free and debt free.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Bernie Sanders
Sanders

Elizabeth Warren

U.S. senator, Massachusetts

“My plan also eliminates tuition and fees at technical, two-year, four-year public college,” Warren told The Post. Warren is also a co-sponsor of the Debt-Free College Act, which provides funding to states to subsidize student costs associated with college, including tuition, room and board and supplies.

Candidate positions highlighted
Elizabeth Warren
Warren

Should graduate without debt

Should graduate without debt

Michael Bennet

U.S. senator, Colorado

Bennet supports helping low- and moderate-income students graduate from school debt-free. “Students from higher-income families should pay for a higher education,” he told The Post.

Candidate positions highlighted
Michael Bennet
Bennet

Cory Booker

U.S. senator, New Jersey

Booker's campaign website said he pledges to “establish a path to debt-free college, because choosing to pursue higher education should not mean a lifetime of debt.” Booker is a co-sponsor of the Debt-Free College Act, which provides funding to states to subsidize student costs associated with college, including tuition, room and board and supplies.

Candidate positions highlighted
Cory Booker
Booker

Kirsten Gillibrand (Dropped out)

U.S. senator, New York

Gillibrand is no longer running for president. Gillibrand is a co-sponsor of the Debt-Free College Act, which provides funding to states to subsidize student costs associated with college, including tuition, room and board and supplies. “Kirsten’s national public service plan would reward students with two years of tuition-free education at a community college or public university for every one year of public service they perform,” her campaign website said.

Candidate positions highlighted
Kirsten Gillibrand
Gillibrand

Kamala D. Harris

U.S. senator, California

Harris “believes that in America, your family’s wealth should not dictate your success,” according to her campaign website. It said she plans to “make four-year public college debt-free, and provide an income boost to nearly 1 in 7 Pell Grant recipients through her LIFT Act, the largest tax cut for working Americans in generations.” Harris is also a co-sponsor of the Debt-Free College Act, which provides funding to states to subsidize student costs associated with college, including tuition, room and board and supplies.

Candidate positions highlighted
Kamala Harris
Harris

John Hickenlooper (Dropped out)

Former governor, Colorado

Hickenlooper is no longer running for president. Hickenlooper told The Post that tuition at four-year colleges should be reduced based on income. He has also “proposed reducing student debt, including student loan forgiveness in high-need areas, urban and rural,” according to a campaign spokesperson.

Candidate positions highlighted
John Hickenlooper
Hickenlooper

Beto O'Rourke

Former U.S. representative, Texas

O'Rourke “wants to ensure there are debt-free higher education options,” a campaign spokesperson told The Post. “He supports making the first two years of tuition at a state institution or technical college free for every American. He also supports meeting the full cost of attendance for low-income students and ensuring the middle-income students have debt-free options — covering the full costs of tuition, books, as well as room and board — through increased grant aid tied to a commitment from states and institutions to do their part and keep tuition stable.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Beto O'Rourke
O'Rourke

Marianne Williamson

Author

William supports allowing students to attend 4-year state colleges without taking on debt, she told The Post. “My governing philosophy is that all public policy should help citizens in their efforts to thrive and actualize their talents and creativity. If that is the case, their contribution to society will create the greatest economy and prosperity for everyone,” she said. “In addition to making community colleges and state schools affordable or free, we must also include trade schools for those who are changing jobs and upgrading skills.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Marianne Williamson
Williamson

Something else

Something else

Joe Biden

Former vice president

A campaign spokesperson said Biden will soon release a plan for “making higher education affordable and accessible to all Americans.” While vice president, Biden helped pass proposals including increasing funding for Pell scholarships and increasing the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

Candidate positions highlighted
Joe Biden
Biden

Steve Bullock

Governor, Montana

“The fact is, while promises of free college and total loan forgiveness make for flashy press releases, they aren't serious solutions for most people's daily lives,” Bullock wrote in a CNN op-ed. Bullock has proposed freezing tuition by increasing higher education funding, as he did in Montana.

Candidate positions highlighted
Steve Bullock
Bullock

John Delaney

Former U.S. representative, Maryland

Delaney’s campaign website suggests ways to make college more affordable including providing “more grants to help students from lower-income families” and allowing “borrowers to discharge public and private student loan debt in bankruptcy proceedings.”

Candidate positions highlighted
John Delaney
Delaney

Amy Klobuchar

U.S. senator, Minnesota

“I want to make it easier for kids to go to college. And I think we do it by focusing our resources on the people that need it most. And my problem with some of these [free college] plans is they literally would pay for wealthy kids, for Wall Street kids to go to college,” Klobuchar said at the second Democratic debate. “I would allow people to refinance [student loan debt] at a better rate and I would make sure that we improve those student loan repayment programs for our teachers and expand them so that you literally — over 5, 10 years — can get it paid for if you go into occupations where we don't have enough workers.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Amy Klobuchar
Klobuchar

Joe Sestak

Former U.S. representative, Pennsylvania

Sestak told The Post he opposes free college for all but offered proposals to lower costs. “1) Making federal aid and loan payments to universities and colleges contingent on their keeping tuition increases pegged to inflation, or lower; 2) Restructuring federal student loans so the government does not make a profit, as it currently does because the interest rate is based on the 10-year Treasury bond ...; 3) Increasing Pell grants; and 4) Implementing a national credit transfer system (since the average transfer student loses 43% of their credits, costing billions of dollars nationally.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Joe Sestak
Sestak

Andrew Yang

Tech entrepreneur

Yang supports lowering costs by proposals including reducing the ratio of administrators to students and redirecting portions of the weathiest endowments to fund a new university in Ohio, according to his campaign website.

Candidate positions highlighted
Andrew Yang
Yang

Unclear/no response

Unclear/no response

Bill de Blasio (Dropped out)

Mayor, New York City

de Blasio is no longer running for president. De Blasio did not provide an answer to this question.

Candidate positions highlighted
Bill de Blasio
de Blasio

Seth Moulton (Dropped out)

U.S. representative, Massachusetts

Moulton is no longer running for president. Moulton did not provide an answer to this question.

Candidate positions highlighted
Seth Moulton
Moulton

Tom Steyer

Billionaire activist

“Without guaranteed access to a good education, there’s no such thing as equal opportunity,” Steyer's campaign website said. “Our government must protect the right to a free, quality, public education from preschool through college and on to skills training.” Steyer did provide an answer to this question.

Candidate positions highlighted
Tom Steyer
Steyer

For all families

Some would make college free for wealthy families, too.

Should be free

Should be free

Julian Castro

Former mayor, San Antonio

“Eliminate tuition at public colleges, universities, community colleges, and technical and vocational schools, breaking the work-school tug of war,” Castro's education plan said. “Share the financing of tuition costs with state governments and provide incentives to reduce the cost of college programs including fees, discourage underinvestment into public education by states. Require accountability and standards that include fair pay for all employees and staff, including adjuncts and non-faculty staff, and respect for their right to join a union.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Julian Castro
Castro

Bernie Sanders

U.S. senator, Vermont

Sanders “believes the right to a good and free education is a basic human right,” a campaign spokesperson told The Post. “That means we have got to make public colleges and universities, tribal colleges, community colleges, trade schools, and apprenticeship programs tuition and debt-free and cancel all student debt,” Sanders told The Post. “Every young person, regardless of their family income, the color of their skin, disability, or immigration status should have the opportunity to attend college. ... If we are to succeed as a nation, public colleges and universities must be tuition free and debt free.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Bernie Sanders
Sanders

Elizabeth Warren

U.S. senator, Massachusetts

“My plan also eliminates tuition and fees at technical, two-year, four-year public college,” Warren told The Post. Warren is also a co-sponsor of the Debt-Free College Act, which provides funding to states to subsidize student costs associated with college, including tuition, room and board and supplies.

Candidate positions highlighted
Elizabeth Warren
Warren

Should graduate without debt

Should graduate without debt

Cory Booker

U.S. senator, New Jersey

Booker's campaign website said he pledges to “establish a path to debt-free college, because choosing to pursue higher education should not mean a lifetime of debt.” Booker is a co-sponsor of the Debt-Free College Act, which provides funding to states to subsidize student costs associated with college, including tuition, room and board and supplies.

Candidate positions highlighted
Cory Booker
Booker

Kirsten Gillibrand (Dropped out)

U.S. senator, New York

Gillibrand is no longer running for president. Gillibrand is a co-sponsor of the Debt-Free College Act, which provides funding to states to subsidize student costs associated with college, including tuition, room and board and supplies. “Kirsten’s national public service plan would reward students with two years of tuition-free education at a community college or public university for every one year of public service they perform,” her campaign website said.

Candidate positions highlighted
Kirsten Gillibrand
Gillibrand

Kamala D. Harris

U.S. senator, California

Harris “believes that in America, your family’s wealth should not dictate your success,” according to her campaign website. It said she plans to “make four-year public college debt-free, and provide an income boost to nearly 1 in 7 Pell Grant recipients through her LIFT Act, the largest tax cut for working Americans in generations.” Harris is also a co-sponsor of the Debt-Free College Act, which provides funding to states to subsidize student costs associated with college, including tuition, room and board and supplies.

Candidate positions highlighted
Kamala Harris
Harris

Tim Ryan

U.S. representative, Ohio

“As President, I would have the federal government allow students to attend 4-year college without taking on debt. I would ensure this is available to everyone,” Ryan told The Post. He cosponsed the College for All Act, which would make four-year college free for middle-class and lower-income families and community college free for all students, and would lower student loan interest rates.

Candidate positions highlighted
Tim Ryan
Ryan

Marianne Williamson

Author

William supports allowing students to attend 4-year state colleges without taking on debt, she told The Post. “My governing philosophy is that all public policy should help citizens in their efforts to thrive and actualize their talents and creativity. If that is the case, their contribution to society will create the greatest economy and prosperity for everyone,” she said. “In addition to making community colleges and state schools affordable or free, we must also include trade schools for those who are changing jobs and upgrading skills.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Marianne Williamson
Williamson

Something else

Something else

Michael Bennet

U.S. senator, Colorado

Bennet supports helping low- and moderate-income students graduate from school debt-free. “Students from higher-income families should pay for a higher education,” he told The Post.

Candidate positions highlighted
Michael Bennet
Bennet

Joe Biden

Former vice president

A campaign spokesperson said Biden will soon release a plan for “making higher education affordable and accessible to all Americans.” While vice president, Biden helped pass proposals including increasing funding for Pell scholarships and increasing the American Opportunity Tax Credit.

Candidate positions highlighted
Joe Biden
Biden

Steve Bullock

Governor, Montana

“The fact is, while promises of free college and total loan forgiveness make for flashy press releases, they aren't serious solutions for most people's daily lives,” Bullock wrote in a CNN op-ed. Bullock has proposed freezing tuition by increasing higher education funding, as he did in Montana.

Candidate positions highlighted
Steve Bullock
Bullock

Pete Buttigieg

Mayor, South Bend, Ind.

Buttigieg's campaign website said he will make “public tuition affordable for all and completely free at lower incomes — combined with a large increase in Pell Grants that provides for basic living expenses and keeps up with inflation. Middle-income families at public colleges will pay zero tuition.” During the first Democratic debate, Buttigieg said, “I just don’t believe it makes sense to ask working-class families to subsidize even the children of billionaires. I think the children of the wealthiest Americans can pay at least a little bit of tuition.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg

John Delaney

Former U.S. representative, Maryland

Delaney’s campaign website suggests ways to make college more affordable including providing “more grants to help students from lower-income families” and allowing “borrowers to discharge public and private student loan debt in bankruptcy proceedings.”

Candidate positions highlighted
John Delaney
Delaney

Tulsi Gabbard

U.S. representative, Hawaii

Gabbard co-sponsored the College for All Act, which would make four-year college free for middle-class and lower-income families and community college free for all students, and would lower student loan interest rates.

Candidate positions highlighted
Tulsi Gabbard
Gabbard

John Hickenlooper (Dropped out)

Former governor, Colorado

Hickenlooper is no longer running for president. Hickenlooper told The Post that tuition at four-year colleges should be reduced based on income. He has also “proposed reducing student debt, including student loan forgiveness in high-need areas, urban and rural,” according to a campaign spokesperson.

Candidate positions highlighted
John Hickenlooper
Hickenlooper

Jay Inslee (Dropped out)

Governor, Washington state

Inslee is no longer running for president. “Governor Inslee’s approach will include making attendance at public college and community college tuition and debt-free for students from lower-income and middle-class families,” Inslee's campaign website said.

Candidate positions highlighted
Jay Inslee
Inslee

Amy Klobuchar

U.S. senator, Minnesota

“I want to make it easier for kids to go to college. And I think we do it by focusing our resources on the people that need it most. And my problem with some of these [free college] plans is they literally would pay for wealthy kids, for Wall Street kids to go to college,” Klobuchar said at the second Democratic debate. “I would allow people to refinance [student loan debt] at a better rate and I would make sure that we improve those student loan repayment programs for our teachers and expand them so that you literally — over 5, 10 years — can get it paid for if you go into occupations where we don't have enough workers.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Amy Klobuchar
Klobuchar

Beto O'Rourke

Former U.S. representative, Texas

O'Rourke “wants to ensure there are debt-free higher education options,” a campaign spokesperson told The Post. “He supports making the first two years of tuition at a state institution or technical college free for every American. He also supports meeting the full cost of attendance for low-income students and ensuring the middle-income students have debt-free options — covering the full costs of tuition, books, as well as room and board — through increased grant aid tied to a commitment from states and institutions to do their part and keep tuition stable.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Beto O'Rourke
O'Rourke

Joe Sestak

Former U.S. representative, Pennsylvania

Sestak told The Post he opposes free college for all but offered proposals to lower costs. “1) Making federal aid and loan payments to universities and colleges contingent on their keeping tuition increases pegged to inflation, or lower; 2) Restructuring federal student loans so the government does not make a profit, as it currently does because the interest rate is based on the 10-year Treasury bond ...; 3) Increasing Pell grants; and 4) Implementing a national credit transfer system (since the average transfer student loses 43% of their credits, costing billions of dollars nationally.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Joe Sestak
Sestak

Andrew Yang

Tech entrepreneur

Yang supports lowering costs by proposals including reducing the ratio of administrators to students and redirecting portions of the weathiest endowments to fund a new university in Ohio, according to his campaign website.

Candidate positions highlighted
Andrew Yang
Yang

Unclear/no response

Unclear/no response

Bill de Blasio (Dropped out)

Mayor, New York City

de Blasio is no longer running for president. De Blasio did not provide an answer to this question.

Candidate positions highlighted
Bill de Blasio
de Blasio

Seth Moulton (Dropped out)

U.S. representative, Massachusetts

Moulton is no longer running for president. Moulton did not provide an answer to this question.

Candidate positions highlighted
Seth Moulton
Moulton

Tom Steyer

Billionaire activist

“Without guaranteed access to a good education, there’s no such thing as equal opportunity,” Steyer's campaign website said. “Our government must protect the right to a free, quality, public education from preschool through college and on to skills training.” Steyer did provide an answer to this question.

Candidate positions highlighted
Tom Steyer
Steyer

How candidate positions were compiled

The Washington Post sent a detailed questionnaire to every Democratic presidential campaign asking whether it supports various changes to U.S. education policy. Candidates with similar stances were organized into groups using a combination of those answers, legislative records, action taken in an executive role and other public comments, such as policy discussion on campaign websites, social media posts, interviews, town hall meetings and other news reports. See something we missed? Let us know.

We expect candidates to develop more detailed policy positions throughout the campaign, and this page will update as we learn more about their plans. We also will note if candidates change their positions on an issue.

At initial publication, this page included major candidates who had announced a run for president or an exploratory committee. Wayne Messam, mayor of Miramar, Fla., reported $0 in spending during the 3rd quarter of 2019. As a result, he is no longer considered a "major candidate" in the Post's 2020 coverage and has been removed from this project.

Curious about where candidates stand on another policy? Fill out this suggestion form.