Election 2016: Where the Democratic Candidates Stand on Higher Education

Higher education has already become an important issue in the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary race. It should receive considerable attention in the first primary date, scheduled for October 13 on CNN.

In general, Democrats have been more specific and more vocal about their higher education plans than the Republicans. This is nothing new; higher education has long been a favored interest group and source of power for Democrats. In the 2012 presidential campaign, 157 employees of Princeton donated money to Barack Obama, while only two—one a visiting professor and the other a janitor—gave money to Mitt Romney. 

The ties between Democrats and higher education run extremely deep. For instance, the two most likely competitors to frontrunner Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are both married to college educators.

One proposal has emerged as the centerpiece of Democratic plans for higher education—that is a rather ambiguous concept known as “debt-free college.”

Here is a rundown of the Democrats’ records and public statements on higher education:

Hillary Clinton

Former First Lady, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has dominated the polls since before announcing her campaign. One opponent has gone so far as to accuse the national party of rigging the process in Clinton’s favor.

On higher education, Clinton has been clear about her vision, though her clarity may be a defensive maneuver in response to competition from Bernie Sanders. Like Sanders, Clinton has expressed a belief in the right to a college education, though her actual proposals are comparably restrained when it comes to making college free.

The centerpiece of her 2016 higher education platform is a proposal aimed at the cost of an education to students, called the “New College Compact.” “Students should never have to borrow to pay for tuition, books, and fees to attend a four-year public college in their state,” her website reads. Her plan gives grants to states that guarantee debt-free tuition at four-year public universities. The plan also realizes President Obama’s dream of making community college tuition free to students.

Under Clinton’s plan, students are required to work 10 hours a week to receive aid, and families must make “an affordable and realistic family contribution.”

States that choose to adopt the New College Compact receive grants from the federal government, as well as lower interest rates on student loans. States that adopt the compact are not allowed to cut higher education funding and must increase funding over time.

Public colleges in states that choose not to adopt Clinton’s plan will be allowed to implement it by working directly with the federal Department of Education to adopt it. 

Clinton’s plan promises to reward colleges that make degrees affordable and improve outcomes for graduates and punish colleges that do not. The government will crack down on colleges that use “abusive practices” that lead to “debt without value.” 

Like other Democratic candidates, Clinton proposes to allow students to refinance their loans at current rates, which she estimates will save 25 million borrowers an average of $2,000. Also like other Democrats, Clinton would expand income-based repayment; her plan caps payments at 10 percent of a borrower’s salary.

The New College Compact also expands GI benefits and AmeriCorps, expands the American Opportunity Tax Credit for middle-income borrowers, provides aid for non-traditional certificates and training programs, and implements a “skin in the game” policy to penalize colleges for their students’ post-graduation performance.

The compact calls for a new “Borrower Bill of Rights,” which has not yet materialized.

All in all, Clinton expects the plan to cost taxpayers $350 billion over 10 years; she plans to make up that cost by reducing tax exemptions and credits for high-income taxpayers.

Clinton also released a detailed plan early in the 2008 campaign. One major plank in that campaign was that, like opponents Barack Obama and John Edwards, she favored scrapping the Family Federal Education Loan Program and replacing it with the federal Direct Loan Program. That policy materialized under President Obama.

As a senator on the education committee for eight years, Clinton:

  • Cosponsored the Dream Act—which would have allowed illegal immigrant college students to gain legal status—multiple times.
  • As a senator, cosponsored the creation of the U.S. Public Service Academy, which would have trained students for government work as academies like West Point train students for the military.
  • Joined a friend of the court brief, supporting University of Michigan’s racial preferences in admissions, in 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger Supreme Court case.

Additionally, she has:

  • Pledged to push colleges to fight sexual assault and criticized for-profit colleges for leaving their students with excessive debt. Her husband, former president Bill Clinton, resigned from an honorary chancellorship with a for-profit college system—which had donated millions of dollars to the Clinton Foundation—after Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy.
  • Commanded six-figure speaking fees while touring colleges in 2013 and 2014, sparking criticism of excessive college spending during times of austerity. 

Bernie Sanders

“We need a revolution in the way higher education is funded,” declared Bernie Sanders. The self-described democratic socialist, the independent junior senator from Vermont running as a Democrat, was speaking in response to President Obama’s free community college proposal. Sanders, also formerly a House member and mayor of the city of Burlington, one-upped the president and called for two years of free-of-charge tuition at any public college. Three months later, he introduced a bill that would practically eliminate tuition and fees at all public colleges.

Bernie Sanders has an intimate connection with a higher education insider; his wife, Jane O’Meara Sanders, was the president of Burlington College, a small liberal arts school, from 2004 to 2011. However, in contrast with the detail of Clinton’s website, the only mention of Sanders’ higher education plan on his website is as one step in his plan to reduce “income and wealth inequality.”

In exchange for Title IV federal student aid funding, Sanders would require colleges to eliminate tuition and fees for in-state students, among other requirements. His plan would also require states to cover the total cost of attendance—including room and board and textbooks—for Pell-qualifying students, minus the amount they receive from Pell grants. It would compel states to maintain current public college funding levels.

Sanders’ plan also requires states to make at least 75 percent of faculty tenure or tenure-track. The plan, which Sanders introduced in the Senate as the College for All Act, is estimated to cost taxpayers—primarily those conducting transactions in the financial sector—$70 billion a year. In September’s Time cover story on Sanders, he offered a clue as to how he might pressure Congress to adopt a tax hike to pay for his “free” college tuition plan:

  • “The answer is to say, ‘Hey, John [Boehner], take a look out your window. Because there are a million young people there that are in support of the legislation. They are voting. They know what’s going on. If you refuse to make college affordable, they’re going to vote your people out of office.’ That’s the offer you can’t refuse.’”

Sanders also: 

  • Cosponsored Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren’s Bank on Students Emergency Loan Refinancing Act in 2014, which would raise taxes on high-income individuals to allow certain student loan borrowers to refinance their loans.
  • Criticized the practice of the federal government profiting from student loans.
  • Voted for the 2010 Health Care Reconciliation Act, repealing the Family Federal Education Loan Program.
  • As a member of the House, voted against a 1998 bill that offered tax breaks for families who invested in education savings accounts. President Clinton ultimately vetoed the bill.

Martin O’Malley

Martin O’Malley was the governor of Maryland from 2007 to 2015. In April, before declaring his candidacy, he hinted at his college plan in an op-ed for the Washington Post. He lamented the struggles of today’s students to keep up with payments, leading to $1.3 trillion in overall debt. “To really make a dent in student debt, the federal government will have to act,” he wrote.

His full plan would allow students to refinance their debt at lower interest rates and cap monthly payments at 10 percent of income (and make income-based repayment the default choice). He wrote that debt-free college is the ultimate goal, but that those are the first steps.

He later released a policy paper going into more detail. His plan includes “calling on” states to freeze public tuition rates—with a goal of tying rates to median incomes—and to increase college funding. O’Malley would increase federal spending, too; he would expand Pell grants and the federal work-study program. His plan would provide additional aid for colleges who improve their performance. O’Malley does not say how he would do it, but he would increase access to high school dual-enrollment programs and college counseling

Finally, O’Malley’s policy paper would go even further than President Obama’s “aggressive efforts” to crack down on abuse by for-profit colleges; O’Malley would make Obama’s “gainful employment” rule more restrictive. The gainful employment rule evaluates occupational schools by their graduates’ debt-to-income ratios. 

O’Malley has not released details about the financing of his plan, though he says it would take five years to see his plan through.

Some of O’Malley’s record as governor: 

  • Froze tuition for four years and capped tuition increases at 3 percent in the years after that. Maryland’s tuition levels fell from the eighth most expensive in 2007, at the beginning of O’Malley’s tenure, to the 27th in 2014, near the end.
  • Increased state spending on higher education by 34 percent throughout his tenure.
  • Signed a 2013 bill requiring the Maryland Higher Education Commission and the University of Maryland to make recommendations for improving “minority teacher recruitment, preparation, development, and retention” at the elementary and secondary levels.
  • In 2007, created the Higher Education Investment Fund, which supplements higher education appropriations and is used for capital projects and workforce development initiatives.
  • Between FY2008 and FY2010, increased community college funding from $56.4 million to $84.3 million.

Lincoln Chafee

Lincoln Chafee spent eight years as a left-leaning Republican U.S. Senator from Rhode Island. He then served one term as the state’s independent governor before finally changing his party affiliation to the Democratic Party. 

The last two years of Chafee’s governorship saw a four-year college tuition freeze, while community college tuition was frozen during his final three years. Chafee’s 2014 budget called for increased state funding to make up for the tuition freezes; he made a pointed effort to reverse cuts made by his Republican predecessor Don Carcieri. In 2014, Chafee asked voters to approve a $125 million bond to improve the University of Rhode Island College of Engineering, which passed.

While governor, Chafee increased college access for illegal immigrants by approving legislation providing them in-state tuition, causing a huge uproar

As a senator, Chafee voted for a Pell increase in 2005. In 2000, he told Project VoteSmart that he supported affirmative action, supported increasing funding of Pell grants and Stafford loans, and supported federal tax incentives to help families save for college. However, he was one of only two Republicans in the Senate that year to vote against a bill expanding Education Savings Accounts.

Jim Webb 

He is best known as a former Virginia senator, but Jim Webb has a varied past: secretary of the Navy and an assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan, author of 10 books, and writer for the 2000 film Rules of Engagement. He also won an Emmy for a PBS “NewsHour” report he filmed in Beirut in 1983.

Like Chafee, Webb has not released a higher education plan; in a speech posted on his website, his references to education are focused on returning adults and how education can improve life for working families, one of his target demographics.

Another one of his target demographics are veterans, as evidenced by his introduction of the Post-9/11 G.I. Bill on his first day in the Senate in 2007. That eventually passed, on June 30, 2008, expanding benefits for veterans who served after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

In his campaign announcement, Webb touted his senatorial support for “second-chance programs” in community colleges, to be financed by employer tax credits. He said he would continue to push those remedial programs if elected. He then suggested he would implement a voluntary public service program, offering loan forgiveness in exchange for participation.

Webb was the only member of the Democratic Party to vote against Harry Reid’s 2012 bill to rein in student loan interest rates. In 2010, he wrote an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal making a case against affirmative action. That year, he also voted for the Health Care Reconciliation Act, which eliminated any remnants of the public-private partnership student loan program, the Family Federal Education Loan Program.

Joe Biden 

Should Vice President Joe Biden decide to run, as many expect him to, his record will be closely tied to the Obama administration. The Obama higher education legacy includes one major reform, eliminating the Family Federal Education Loan Program. It also includes calling for fully subsidized community college tuition, creating a new college rating tool, cracking down on colleges it perceives to be in violation of Title IX, considerably increasing Pell grant funding, and imposing additional regulations on for-profit colleges. 

The Obama administration has also expanded income-based repayment, as well as loan forgiveness for those who work in “public service” for 10 years.

Biden, whose wife Jill has a doctorate in education and teaches at a community college, had a concrete role in the administration’s higher education policy as head of the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. The task force implicitly encouraged universities to adopt “affirmative consent” policies that consider nothing less than a strong “yes” to be sexual consent. 

In an online debate on the Huffington Post during the 2008 presidential campaign, Biden, then a Senator out of Delaware, offered details on how he would expand federal aid for students. These included:

  • Allowing families with up to $150,000 in income a refundable tax credit of $3,000 per student; 
  • Permitting students from families that made up to $50,000 to qualify for Pell grants;
  • Raising Pell grants from $4,300 to $6,300.

Starting in the 1990s and extending through 2005, Biden had a pivotal role in passing legislation that weakened the ability of student borrowers to declare bankruptcy.

Biden voted for the 1998 and 2000 Education Savings Accounts bills largely favored by Republicans and opposed by Democrats. In 2005, he voted for a bill that would have increased Pell grant funding and awards. 

Larry Lessig 

Lawrence Lessig is a professor of law at Harvard and is running a single-issue campaign to pass a campaign finance reform bill called the Citizen Equality Act. Since he has said he will resign after signing that bill, his potential running mate’s higher education views would be more relevant than Lessig’s.


The extent to which the Democrats address higher education in the coming weeks could shape the debate throughout the 2016 presidential race. Few Republicans have put out concrete higher education plans, and none has made a higher education issue a central talking point. The Democrats have so far been free from much public scrutiny over their various plans to solve the student debt problem. That scrutiny may come as the candidates take center stage for the first debate.

(Editor’s note: Click here to read Harry Painter’s summary of the Republican presidential candidates’ positions, written in August.)