Election 2016: Candidate Views on Student Loans, Higher Education

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It’s primary season. As Americans hit the polls this winter and spring, one issue stands out for young voters: student loans.

More than half of voters age 18 to 34 say a candidate’s plan for fighting student debt will be a “major influencer” in deciding whom to vote for in November. That’s according to a December 2015 poll by Young Invincibles, a national, nonpartisan nonprofit focused on engaging young adults in political issues.

“Lots of different issues matter to millennials, but I think what we’ll see driving them to the polls are those pocketbook issues,” says Colin Seeberger, strategic campaigns advisor for Young Invincibles.

Many candidates’ higher education proposals will affect future college students more than current students or grads. But voters with existing debt would be wise to pay attention in case they need additional financial aid for grad school, says Robert Kelchen, assistant professor of higher education at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.

Under the next president, borrowers may also have the opportunity to sign up for a new student loan repayment plan or refinance student loans through the federal government (refinancing is currently only available through private companies and some states).

How our guide can help

To catch you up on the major candidates’ ideas, we’ve distilled their higher education proposals down to the basics. The candidates are listed in order based on their standing in the Democratic and Republican Real Clear Politics aggregate polls as of March 16, 2016.

Click on the links below to jump to a particular candidate, or scroll to read about all of the candidates’ proposals.

Note: For the candidates who had released comprehensive higher education plans as of March 16, we included links to those plans. Some candidates hadn’t released such plans; in those cases, we included a link to a relevant news article or their campaign website.

Hillary Clinton (D) Donald Trump (R)
Bernie Sanders (D) Ted Cruz (R)
John Kasich (R)

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton (D)
Supports:

  • Tuition-free community college
  • Debt-free public four-year college
  • Cutting interest rates on federal student loans
  • Government student loan refinancing for borrowers with existing federal loans
  • Making income-based repayment the default repayment plan for all borrowers

In her own words: “We need to make a quality education affordable and available to everyone willing to work for it without saddling them with decades of debt.” (College affordability speech, Aug. 10, 2015)

Quick take: Former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton says the government shouldn’t profit from federal student loans, so she supports keeping interest rates on them low. She also wants students to be able to attend four-year public college without taking on debt. To achieve that, Clinton is proposing that states work with colleges to cut costs and award need-based grant money, and that students and parents contribute what they can afford. She would pay for her plan by closing tax loopholes for the wealthy.

Read more: Clinton’s higher education plan, “The New College Compact”

Nerd Tip

Want to lower your interest rate now?
See if you qualify for student loan refinancing, which could get you a lower monthly payment or a shorter loan term.

Bernie Sanders

Bernie Sanders (D)
Supports:

  • Tuition-free public college
  • Cutting interest rates on federal student loans
  • Government student loan refinancing for borrowers with existing federal loans

In his own words: “We should look at college today the way high school was looked at 60 years ago. All young people who have the ability should be able to get a college education.” (Democratic debate, Dec. 19, 2015)

Quick take: Bernie Sanders, a U.S. senator from Vermont, was the first 2016 presidential candidate to come out with a comprehensive higher education plan. The College for All Act, which he introduced in the Senate in May 2015, would make public colleges and universities tuition-free thanks to a tax on certain stock, bond and derivatives trades. His policies have attracted support from young voters, though critics question the feasibility of his $70 billion plan.

Read more: Sanders’ higher education plan

Nerd Tip

You can sign up for an income-driven student loan repayment plan now if you’re having trouble affording your student loan bill. REPAYE is the newest (and most generous) repayment plan on the block.

Donald Trump

 Donald Trump (R)
Supports:

  • Reforming the federal student loans system so the federal government doesn’t profit from student loans
  • Cutting the Department of Education’s budget

In his own words: “That’s probably one of the only things the government shouldn’t make money off — I think it’s terrible that one of the only profit centers we have is student loans.” (The HillJuly 23, 2015)

Quick take: Businessman Donald Trump hasn’t released a formal plan related to higher education, but he’s said in several media interviews that he doesn’t think the government should profit from student loans. He’s also said he wants to cut funding for the U.S. Department of Education budget big-time. That department funds college grants (including Pell Grants), subsidized student loans and work study programs.

Ted Cruz

 Ted Cruz (R)
Supports:

  • Abolishing the U.S. Department of Education and reallocating education funding to states

In his own words: “Economic growth is critical to young people because if we want this generation to be able to pay off their loans and develop the skills to live the American dream, we’ve got to return to an environment where small businesses are growing and flourishing, and creating jobs and opportunities.” (Interview with theSkimm, Aug. 4, 2015)

Quick take: Ted Cruz, a U.S. senator from Texas, hasn’t proposed a specific higher education plan or campaigned much on education issues. But he supports dismantling the U.S. Department of Education, which funds grants, subsidized loans and work-study programs, in favor of giving states more decision-making power. He’s mentioned that he recently paid off his own student loans; in 2014 he voted against letting borrowers refinance their federal loans with the government.

Read more: Cruz’s Five for Freedom plan, which includes abolishing the Department of Education

Nerd Tip

If you have federal loans, you may qualify for student loan forgiveness, which can relieve you of some or all of your debt. You can qualify if you work for a nonprofit or the government, are a teacher in a low-income public school or are on an income-driven repayment plan.

 John Kasich

John Kasich (R)
Supports:

  • Downsizing the U.S. Department of Education and reallocating education funding to states
  • Expanding high school students’ access to courses that provide college credit
  • Tying government funding for public colleges and universities to graduation rates

In his own words: [In] Ohio we’re changing the whole system. Universities will not get paid one dime unless the student graduates or completes a course.” (Republican debate, Oct. 28, 2015)

Quick take: John Kasich was elected governor of Ohio in 2010 and reelected in 2014. While he hasn’t released a student loan debt reform plan as a presidential candidate, his record as governor could offer clues on his approach to college affordability. His February 2015 state budget proposal included a cap on public college tuition increases in 2016 and a tuition freeze in 2017. He also created the Task Force on Affordability and Efficiency to explore additional ways to lower college costs. Throughout the presidential campaign, Kasich has advocated for stronger state involvement in education issues and a reduced role for the federal government.

Read more: John Kasich’s views on education

NerdWallet’s financial aid resources:

Teddy Nykiel is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: teddy@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @teddynykiel.

Brianna McGurran is a staff writer at NerdWallet, a personal finance website. Email: bmcgurran@nerdwallet.com. Twitter: @briannamcscribe.

This post was updated. It was originally published Feb. 9, 2016.