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Presidential Contenders Make Higher Education Costs A Hot Button Issue


This week, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders announced his proposal to cancel American's outstanding student loan debt, all of it - $1.6 trillion worth.


BERNIE SANDERS: This proposal will make it possible for every person in America to get all of the education they need regardless of their financial status.

INSKEEP: Now, Sanders is one of numerous Democratic presidential candidates promising to address the cost of college in various ways. As we prepare for this week's two-part presidential debate, NPR's Anya Kamenetz has more.

ANYA KAMENETZ, BYLINE: In 2016, Bernie Sanders stood out as among the first major contenders for a presidential nomination to call for making college free. In 2020, two Democratic contenders, Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, have released detailed free college and student debt relief plans. Many more of the nearly two dozen candidates - including Joe Biden, Senator Kamala Harris and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand - have voiced support for free college or co-sponsored related bills.

KEVIN CAREY: It seems like we're in an arms race for who can be the most expansive and ambitious when it comes to tackling the problem of the cost of higher education.

KAMENETZ: Kevin Carey directs education policy at the nonpartisan think tank New America. But, he says, there are important differences among the candidates' proposals and, of course, roadblocks along the way.


ELIZABETH WARREN: No country builds a future by crushing the dreams and hopes of its young people.

KAMENETZ: That's Senator Warren in a campaign video.


WARREN: That's why I'm calling for universal free college and the cancellation of student loan debt of up to $50,000...

KAMENETZ: Although they are often linked, there is one big difference between tuition-free and student debt relief proposals. The federal government runs the student loan program, but it doesn't run our public colleges. States do. That means a president can propose matching funds and incentives - carrots or sticks - but they can't force states to abolish tuition. Kevin Carey at New America compares the situation to what happened when some states refused to increase access to Medicaid despite federal incentives under Obamacare.

CAREY: As we learned from Obamacare and Medicaid expansion, states are apparently willing to leave enormous amounts of federal money on the table if they don't want to expand their own spending.

KAMENETZ: Student loan plans are different from free college. Congress has the power to write off outstanding student debt. That's what Warren and Sanders have called for. They both say forgiving hundreds of billions of dollars in debt will stimulate the economy and allow more millennials to buy homes and start businesses. Senator Elizabeth Warren's student loan debt relief plan is targeted to lower-income people. It would phase out after $50,000 of loan debt. That makes it cheaper than Sanders' plan to write off all student debt.

Both candidates, by the way, say that they would pay for the plans with new taxes on the wealthy or on Wall Street. But neither Sanders' nor Warren's student debt relief proposals put any money in the pockets of people who never attended college in the first place or who never took out loans to do so. Laura Hanna of activist group the Debt Collective says that's not the point. Full debt forgiveness is a matter of principle, she says.

LAURA HANNA: We think that education is a right and that it should be free to everybody.

KAMENETZ: The Debt Collective has been organizing for cancellation of student debt since the Occupy Wall Street protests in 2012. And they appeared alongside Sanders and several House members at Monday's press conference announcing his debt forgiveness proposal.

HANNA: There's real anger and frustration around it. And it's - this is an issue that candidates aren't going to be able to avoid.

KAMENETZ: Student debt relief and free college proposals have clear generational appeal. And the simpler the proposals are, the better they fit in a campaign poster or into a tweet. But that says nothing about their chances for success.

Anya Kamenetz, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anya Kamenetz
Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.