education

Should the government cancel existing student debt, and if so, for everyone or based on income?

Cancel all debt

Cancel all debt

Bernie Sanders

U.S. senator, Vermont

“We will cancel the entire $1.6 trillion in outstanding student debt for the 45 million borrowers who are weighed down by the crushing burden of student debt. President Trump provided a tax cut of more than $1 trillion to the top one percent and large corporations,” a campaign spokesperson told The Post. “[Sanders] believes that money would be better spent on freeing millions of hardworking people from the burden of student debt, boosting the economy by $1 trillion over the next ten years, and creating up to 1.5 million new jobs every year. By canceling student debt, we will save the average student loan borrower about $3,000 a year in student loan payments — and hundreds of thousands of Americans will have the financial resources they need to buy new homes, cars and start new businesses. In addition, this proposal would cut the racial wealth gap for young Americans by more than half — from 12:1 to 5:1.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Bernie Sanders
Sanders

Cancel based on income

Cancel based on income

Michael Bennet

U.S. senator, Colorado

“We should provide targeted relief for those for whom the debt is crushing, hindering basic life functioning,” Bennet told The Post. “We should not cancel all debt for high-income students and students with graduate degrees that will allow them to increase their earnings over their lifetime. Yes, we should limit student debt payments as a share of income for all student debt holders, to ensure that nobody is paying more than 8 percent of their income toward student debt. That would be a 20 percent decrease in payments based on income relative to the current system. For students who make these payments for 20 years, their debt should be forgiven. We should also forgive up to $40,000 in debt over four years for people engaged in public service, including teachers who teach in high-need schools.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Michael Bennet
Bennet

Cory Booker

U.S. senator, New Jersey

“Student loan debt is holding millions of Americans back from buying their first home, starting families, and starting new businesses,” Booker told The Post. “We should start by looking at means-tested debt forgiveness for those who work in public service professions like teaching. As President, I would also work to reduce the burden of student debt by allowing eligible student loan borrowers to refinance their federal loans, and allowing eligible student loan borrowers to refinance their private loans into the federal program.” Booker supports "forgiving and/or refinancing debt for low-income individuals and individuals who go into certain public services professions, among others," a campaign spokesperson told The Post.

Candidate positions highlighted
Cory Booker
Booker

Julian Castro

Former mayor, San Antonio

“Until a borrower is earning at least 250% of the federal poverty line, their monthly loan payment will be capped at $0 with no interest accrual on unpaid interest for three years, exempting half of unpaid interest after three years,” Castro's education plan said. “This is not a deferred payment. The payment amount is $0. Once the borrower is earning above 250% of the federal poverty line, they will not pay more than 10% of their qualified income each month.” His plan also calls for “a new program of targeted loan forgiveness to forgive a proportion of loans for individuals who qualify for and receive means-tested federal assistance such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI), Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or Medicaid for any three years within a five year period.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Julian Castro
Castro

Elizabeth Warren

U.S. senator, Massachusetts

“I also have a plan to cancel student debt for more than 95% of those who carry it,“ Warren told The Post. “The plan offers no debt cancellation to people with household income above $250,000 (the top 5%). This was to ensure we offer broad debt cancellation while simultaneously increasing wealth for Black and Latinx families and reducing both the Black-White and Latinx-White wealth gaps.” Warren’s plan would eliminate up to $50,000 in student debt for borrowers with an annual household income of less than $100,000.

Candidate positions highlighted
Elizabeth Warren
Warren

Marianne Williamson

Author

“Yes. This generation of students cannot thrive if they are saddled with the chronic burden of college loan debt,” Williamson told The Post. “The majority of existing student debt should be cancelled, and others should be able to refinance to a lower level. We should also remove the restriction that prohibits people who declare bankruptcy to include student loans in the debt relief.” Her campaign site said, “We need to explore student loan forgiveness and options to remove red tape and lockouts, and reduce on-time payments from 10 years to 5 years. We need to reduce the interest rate for repayment of loans to a nominal, if not zero, percentage rate. We need to eliminate the origination fee on federal student loans, and eliminate the annual caps on federally subsidized loans.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Marianne Williamson
Williamson

Alleviate debt burdens in other ways

Alleviate debt burdens in other ways

Joe Biden

Former vice president

Biden supports canceling or adjusting payments based on income, his campaign told The Post. “Vice President Biden chaired the Middle Class Task Force and laid the groundwork for the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act to ensure college students can afford their student loans.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Joe Biden
Biden

Steve Bullock

Governor, Montana

“There’s a big difference in how the debt crisis impacts wealthy and lower-income Americans,” Bullock told The Post. “That’s why I don’t support blindly canceling debt regardless of job or income. Instead, student loans should be managed by the government at low interest rates that can be refinanced. We can forgive student loans for people who enter public service — like teaching. And we can make repayment plans tax-free and incentivize more workplaces to offer these benefits.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Steve Bullock
Bullock

Pete Buttigieg

Mayor, South Bend, Ind.

“That would be great for us,” Buttigieg said in response to a question about Sanders's debt cancellation plan in the second Democratic debate. “And then the next day, there would be a student loan program and people would be out taking student loans wondering they weren't — why they weren't lucky enough in timing to get theirs wiped away completely, too.” Buttigieg told Vice that he supports improving existing programs, including the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and the Teacher Loan Forgiveness program.

Candidate positions highlighted
Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg

John Delaney

Former U.S. representative, Maryland

“The federal government shouldn’t be making a profit on student loans. Delaney will reduce interest rates on federal student loans and set them equal to the interest rate on 10-year Treasury bonds,” Delaney's campaign website said.

Candidate positions highlighted
John Delaney
Delaney

Tulsi Gabbard

U.S. representative, Hawaii

Gabbard co-sponsored legislation that would incentivize businesses to help employees pay off their student loans.

Candidate positions highlighted
Tulsi Gabbard
Gabbard

Kirsten Gillibrand (Dropped out)

U.S. senator, New York

Gillibrand is no longer running for president. “Senator Gillibrand believes in allowing students to refinance their student loan debt, and in eliminating student loan debt for public service,” a campaign spokesperson told The Post.

Feb. 18: “Student debt is at a crisis level in this country, and it holds our whole economy down. One of the first things I'd do as president is allow all students to refinance their loans at 4%. The federal government shouldn't be making money off the backs of our students, period.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Kirsten Gillibrand
Gillibrand

Kamala D. Harris

U.S. senator, California

“Students shouldn’t fear decades of debt just because they want to pursue an education. But today in America, students graduate with so much debt, they often can’t take the job they want, start a business or a family, or even pay the bills,” Harris's campaign website said. “Kamala believes we need to act. As president, she’ll provide relief from crushing debt today, and ensure tomorrow’s students can attend college debt-free. That starts with immediately allowing current debt holders to refinance high-interest loans to lower rates, expanding Income Based Repayment (IBR) to ensure no student pays more than they can afford, and cracking down on for-profit colleges and lenders that defraud our students.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Kamala Harris
Harris

John Hickenlooper (Dropped out)

Former governor, Colorado

Hickenlooper is no longer running for president. “Under my plan, we will cut the interest rate of all federal student loans to 2.5 %,” Hickenlooper told The Post. “For future students, we will increase funding to public universities and we will tie certain federal grants with requirements for states to provide their share of funding. We also will make all community colleges tuition-free for future students.”

Candidate positions highlighted
John Hickenlooper
Hickenlooper

Jay Inslee (Dropped out)

Governor, Washington state

Inslee is no longer running for president. “Take steps to reduce the burden of student debt, including fixing the dysfunction of the Public Service Loan Program and enforcing the borrower-defense rules promulgated by the Obama Administration, allowing students defrauded by for-profit institutions to pursue legal action to eliminate their remaining debt burden,” Inslee's campaign website said. “Additionally, Governor Inslee will also propose a new program supporting STEM education and scientific and technical career paths through a student loan debt-forgiveness program for graduates entering clean energy, sustainability, and climate science-related jobs in the non-profit and public sectors.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Jay Inslee
Inslee

Amy Klobuchar

U.S. senator, Minnesota

Klobuchar “supports allowing borrowers to refinance student loans at lower rates, loan forgiveness for in-demand occupations, expanded Pell grants, and tuition-free one- and two-year community college degrees and technical certifications,” her campaign website said.

Candidate positions highlighted
Amy Klobuchar
Klobuchar

Seth Moulton (Dropped out)

U.S. representative, Massachusetts

Jun 27: “Our college plan would do 3 things: 1. Nobody in America will pay more than 10% of income on student loans. 2. If you still have loans after 20 years, they’ll be forgiven completely. 3. Cancel student loans for anyone who chooses to serve the country, civilian or military.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Seth Moulton
Moulton

Beto O'Rourke (Dropped out)

Former U.S. representative, Texas

O'Rourke is no longer running for president. O’Rourke “would allow borrowers with high interest rate private student loan debt to refinance at a lower federal interest rates,” a campaign spokesman told The Post. He “also would reform the existing public service debt forgiveness program by streamlining the options and accelerating debt forgiveness. He will propose that we forgive 10% of a borrower’s outstanding debt at the end of each year that they work in a public interest job tax-free.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Beto O'Rourke
O'Rourke

Tim Ryan (Dropped out)

U.S. representative, Ohio

Ryan is no longer running for president. “The skyrocketing price of higher education is crippling the economic prosperity of our young people before they even have a chance to begin their careers,” Ryan told The Post. “We must figure out how to make college more affordable and how to help those drowning in student loans. That is why I support proposals that would make higher education tuition and debt-free. Because for too long, higher education has been promised only for the privileged few, and everyone’s sons and daughters should have the ability to get the skills they need to succeed — no matter if it is a four year, two year, or certificate school program. From parents who are losing their retirement savings to graduates with crippling debt, no family or individual should have to deal with that burden.”

Candidate positions highlighted
Tim Ryan
Ryan

Joe Sestak

Former U.S. representative, Pennsylvania

“No, the government should not cancel existing student debt, but we must reduce student debt and the cost of higher education by: 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 (due to this, government will make $127 billion in profit this decade); 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),” Sestak told The Post.

Candidate positions highlighted
Joe Sestak
Sestak

Tom Steyer

Billionaire activist

“Our first priority for current student debt holders would be to help alleviate their burden by allowing these individuals to refinance their student loans and making good on our promise to forgive debt for public service through an expansion of the public servant student loan forgiveness program,” Steyer told The Post.

Candidate positions highlighted
Tom Steyer
Steyer

Andrew Yang

Tech entrepreneur

“Immediately reduce the student loan payments for millions of Americans by ensuring that the American government does not profit one cent from its educational loan servicing and that students get the same interest rates as the wealthiest bank,” Yang's campaign website said. He also pledged to “initiate a program that allows graduates to pay a percent of income instead of a fixed amount.”

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

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Background In years past, Democrats’ focus has been on future students and helping them afford college, but that does nothing for those who already have student debt. The new proposals seek to wipe out existing loans, a controversial notion given that many of those who owe large sums are people who attended graduate schools for law, medicine or business and went on to earn large salaries.

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.

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