How Democratic presidential candidates want to change higher education

University of Michigan

In addition to subsidized tuition and student loan reform, leading Democratic presidential candidates have talked of bolstering investment in Historically Black Colleges and Universities, increasing access to apprenticeship and trades, and expanding Pell Grants. (Bridge file photo)

As Michigan’s March 10 presidential primary approaches, Democratic candidates agree that earning a degree or training after high school should be more affordable and that Americans need help getting out of student loan debt.

But the candidates have different plans on how to get there.

Here are the plans of the 11 active Democratic presidential candidates on how they would make higher education more affordable: 

Joe Biden

Community college is at the center of the former vice president’s vision for higher education. He proposes covering tuition at two-year programs with a mix of federal and state grants, with additional money to help community colleges support students and retain teachers, and $8 billion in campus capital improvements. 

On student debt, Biden proposes various repayment assistance programs, including $10,000 of loan forgiveness annually for every year of qualifying public service employment. He also wants to double the maximum level of Pell Grants, put $50 billion into workforce training programs; and invest $70.5 billion in the coming years in Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) and minority-serving institutions. Biden proposes paying for these programs by capping itemized deductions on wealthy Americans to 28 percent and eliminating the stepped-up basis loophole. Read Biden’s plan

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders

The Vermont senator wants to cancel all existing student debt, use federal grants to cover tuition at all public post-secondary programs, cap student loan interest rates below 2 percent, and invest another $1.3 billion in HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. Sanders already introduced the College for All Act in 2017 would eliminate tuition for “students at community colleges and two-year tribal colleges and universities.” His education platform also proposes increased assistance for non-tuition costs of attending school (like food and books) and for the Work-Study Program, a federal program that provides students with part-time jobs. Sanders proposes instituting a series of taxes on stock trades to cover the costs of these programs. Read Sanders’ plan

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren

The Massachusetts senator proposes broad student debt cancellation, government grants for tuition at 2- and 4-year colleges, increased investment in HBCUs, and expanding the funding and eligibility requirements for Pell Grants. Her tiered student debt cancellation would eliminate up to $50,000 in federal student debt for households making less than $100,000 a year, and a slice of debt for families making between $100,000 and $250,000. She is a co-sponsor of Sanders' College for All Act. Her other policies include mandatory annual audits of college graduation rates to identify uneven program completion rates between white and minority students, and phasing in a ban on for-profit colleges receiving any form of federal funding. The senator proposes funding all of her education plans with a 2 percent annual tax on families whose wealth tops $50 million. Read Warren’s plan


Mike Bloomberg

The former New York mayor proposes boosting support for community and technical colleges, and workforce training like apprenticeship and internships through expanded federal grants. Bloomberg proposes innovation grants for employers that create programs to support adult and part-time students, letting adults seeking short-term training and people in prison to use Pell Grants, and allowing individuals collecting unemployment insurance to have their benefits extended if they participate in specified training programs. Read Bloomberg’s economy vision, which touches on his education plan

Pete Buttigieg

Pete Buttigieg

The former South Bend mayor supports making tuition more affordable by providing tuition subsidies for families earning up to $150,000, increasing the max Pell Grant by $1,000, and investing $50 billion over the next 10 years in HBCUs. He also proposes the federal government complete FAFSA forms for families and automatically notify high school freshman of their Pell Grant eligibility. Buttigieg supports forgiving student debt incurred at predatory for-profit colleges and for people who complete 10 years of public service, and establishing income-based payment plans for people who fall behind on their loans. His other policy proposals include: investing $1 billion in community colleges, creating a $2 billion program for food vouchers for community college students, and putting $100 million a year in developing regional, public-private workforce partnerships. Read Buttigieg’s plan

Andrew Yang

Andrew Yang

The New York entrepreneur supports free or drastically-reduced community college tuition, (though he has not laid out how that would be achieved); reducing the student-to-administrator ratio at public universities; and tying future tuition increases to the rate of annual median wage growth. Yang’s wants the federal government to purchase all loan debt and, if students repay 10 percent of their salary for 10 years, forgive any remaining debt. His student loan platform also includes making such debts forgivable if people declare bankruptcy, and establishing forgiveness programs for graduates who work in rural areas or with underprivileged populations. The New York entrepreneur also supports increased advertising and funding for vocational program billions of dollars in new investments at HBCUs. Read Yang’s plan


Amy Klobuchar

The Minnesota senator supports federal and state grants to cover tuition at one- and two-year programs, technical certifications, and industry-recognized credentials. She is the lead sponsor on the American Apprenticeship Act, which would create grants for states to help offset tuition for apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, and supports creating 529 savings accounts at the federal level. Such accounts let people save and spend pre-tax money for education expenses. She also proposes doubling the maximum amount offered through Pell Grants; supporting states in creating microgrants to help students with unexpected, non-tuition education expenses; permitting borrowers to refinance student loans; and creating tax credits for employers that provide workforce training. She doesn’t go as far as some of her fellow candidates in proposing across-the-board student loan forgiveness, but Klobuchar proposes reforming the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program to clarify eligibility, expanding that program to apply to workers in in-demand jobs, and forgiving any of their remaining debt after 10 years of payments tied to income levels. Read Klobuchar’s plan


Tom Steyer

The New York hedge fund manager and philanthropist supports free tuition for education programs beyond high school, reforming the Public Service Student Loan program, tightening regulations on predatory student loan providers, and tying expanding national service programs to educational benefits. He also supports investing $125 billion in HBCUs and leading efforts to reform their governance infrastructure. Read Steyer’s plan


Tulsi Gabbard

The Hawaiian representative supports lowering the cost of post-secondary programs and reforming student loan regulations. She is a co-sponsor of the house version of the College for All Act, which would establish a federal grant program to cover tuition and fees at community colleges and two-year programs. The first female combat veteran to run for president is also the co-sponsor of the Private Student Loan Bankruptcy Fairness Act of 2015, which would allow student loan debt to be discharged through bankruptcy, and supports capping student loan interest rates. Read Gabbard’s plan

Michael Bennet

Michael Bennet

The Colorado senator supports providing tuition-free community college through a combination of state and federal grants. His platform includes expanding Pell Grants to help students graduate college with less debt, increasing investment in career and technical training, capping student loan payments at 8 percent of income and forgiving the debt after 20 years. He also supports debt forgiveness programs for public service or working in high-demand jobs, student loan refinancing and allowing student loans to be discharged when bankruptcy is declared, and simplifying the financial aid process. Read Bennet’s plan

Deval Patrick

Deval Patrick

Patrick has not rolled out an education agenda, but as Massachusetts’ governor he supported making community college free for state residents. Patrick will not appear on Michigan’s ballot due to faulty signatures. Read Patrick’s plan

Note: Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Joe Sestak, Marianne Williamson and John Delaney will also appear on Michigan’s Democratic primary ballot but have dropped out of the presidential race.


Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

If you learned something from the story you're reading please consider supporting our work. Your donation allows us to keep our Michigan-focused reporting and analysis free and accessible to all. All donations are voluntary, but for as little as $1 you can become a member of Bridge Club and support freedom of the press in Michigan during a crucial election year.

Pay with VISA Pay with MasterCard Pay with American Express Donate now

Comment Form

Add new comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.


Tue, 02/11/2020 - 10:12am

If Bridge was truly non-partisan as they always claim to be, we would have read about all the candidates and not just the democrats. But we all know that Bridge will always tilt their favorable articles toward the democrats, and if there is ever an article about Republicans, Bridge will make it as negative as possible. Despite what Bridge says, it is as lame as the lame stream media.

Joel Kurth
Tue, 02/11/2020 - 10:16am

Thanks for the comment, Arjay. Because we have a small staff, and because President Trump's renomination and Michigan primary victory are all but certain, we are focusing on Democrats' policies before the March 10 primary, as that seems to be the most helpful to our readers. After the nominations, you can be assured that we will be scrutinizing how proposals from both major parties and viable third-party candidates would affect Michigan.

Tue, 02/11/2020 - 12:25pm

So what you are saying is that most of your readers are democrats, so you will tailor your news to them. I'm sure Trump has a position on education. But I guess it is of no interest to Bridge because it isn't the same position that Bridge wants to preach. Doesn't sound very non-partisan to me. All it would have taken is one more paragraph.

middle of the mit
Tue, 02/11/2020 - 8:16pm


Calm down man. The title is about the democratic candidates. There are a plethora of them and they are the ones that are running against Donald Trump. If the MI republican party had allowed Bill Weld on the ballot I am sure there would be an article about where the republican candidates stood on the issue, but they didn't and everyone knows what Besty Devos' ideas are.

Pay up!

And if you get screwed by Trump University?

Pay up!

Tue, 02/11/2020 - 12:52pm

Stow your pointless sea-lioning. Trump is going to be the GOP nominee. Despite your impotent meeting, you're still here reading Bridge, despite their reprehensible disposition for the factual reporting that casts the GOP as the underhanded dogs they are.

Tue, 02/11/2020 - 1:21pm

Didn't this used to be called vote buying? Student loan debtors, perspective students and college/university staff make a pretty strong voter base to try to cater for.

Tue, 02/11/2020 - 11:17pm

Not when they spending other people's money.
Especially when it is taxes of those who felt responsible for their education, responsibility for paying off their loans, responsible to earn a degree that they could turn into a well paying job, and worked to gain financial stability.

Wed, 02/12/2020 - 4:53pm

Yes, Matt, that is vote buying. And I, in no way endorse free college (or anything else free, for the most part), but that doesn't mean that I could ever vote for a person as stupid and venal as Trump. How could he possibly have a position on education??? He has already expressed his love for the uneducated for they are the bulk of his supporters. He has appointed another uneducated person, Betsy DeVos to burn down the Department of Education like every other department to which he's appointed an out of touch flame thrower. Look deep into Betsy DeVos's eyes and you will see the other side of her skull. Nothing there. No knowledge and has no sense of mission to improve her department. And better education for Michigan can't be done without a tax increase because we can't attract enough people to even want to work as a teacher here. Pay them and they will come.

Wed, 02/12/2020 - 9:59pm

Subee, once again Michigan has had amongst the highest paid teachers in the country especially relative to our cost of living. Aside from childish insults, tell what has this gotten us. Do you have any evidence that k -12 Ed has improved since the Dept of Ed established? I didn't think so.

middle of the mit
Wed, 02/12/2020 - 11:43pm


While I don't think this is vote buying anymore than tax cuts for the wealthy is, that would not be Matt's take on the situation.

The reason that I don't think that offering reduced prices is vote buying is because with reduced costs for education, it benefits those businesses that Matt is soooo worried about how much they pay in taxes. And yet they won't pay for any of the benefit. In fact they have had 9 years of a $2Billion dollar per year tax cut not to mention the Trump tax cuts.

None the less, You made me LOL with your comment. Kudos to this line: "Look deep into Betsy DeVos's eyes and you will see the other side of her skull. Nothing there. No knowledge and has no sense of mission to improve her department."

The only other thing I could add is that there is something there, and it is dollar signs. Mammon is what she worships.

Thanks for the laugh though.