Student Life

Trump vs. Biden: College Education

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In November, the presidential election will have far-reaching impacts on college students and graduates.

Financial aid, student debt, and college affordability are among the most hotly debated education issues to emerge on the campaign trail. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden have different plans for how to proceed if elected.

Our understanding of the presidential candidates' stances on higher education issues is grounded in a variety of sources, including interviews, speeches, tweets, reports, and statements. Currently, Trump does not have a specific policy on higher education listed on his second-term agenda. However, his 2021 budget proposal includes policies that affect college students. Joe Biden's education policies are outlined on his campaign website.

Student Debt

Student debt has swelled in recent years and now collectively exceeds $1.6 trillion. Between the COVID-19 pandemic and economic decline, many college grads are struggling or failing to pay off their loans. At the start of 2019, 5.2 million federal student loan borrowers were already in default. The average student loan debt has also increased by 220% since 1993. A typical 2019 graduate with a bachelor's degree owes $29,900 and makes monthly payments of $393.

According to a study by The Pew Charitable Trusts, 80% of Americans agree that the government should make it easier for people with student debt to pay off their loans. The CARES Act froze student loan payments and interest rate accrual on federal loans until Sept. 15, 2020; President Trump extended the hold until Dec. 31, 2020, and may continue it through 2021. However, students with private student loans remain burdened with payments.

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Trump

  • Streamline the student-loan system into one income-driven repayment program.
  • Cap loan payments at 12.5% of a borrower's discretionary income.
  • Forgive federal student loans after 15 years of consistent payments.
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Biden

  • Eliminate payments or interest for borrowers making $25,000 or less per year.
  • Set loan payments at 5% of a borrower's discretionary income.
  • Forgive 100% of debt after 20 years of on-time payments.

What Do the Experts Think?

"The objective of the student loan debt forgiveness proposals is to achieve a higher level of fairness that will result in economic benefits as well. Therefore, supporters of student debt abolishment argue that this debt prevents younger Americans from fully participating in our economy."

"I think we will see a lot of efforts to try to move people toward a single program. The disagreement will be what is the one [income-driven repayment] plan to rule them all?"

College Affordability

The average cost of college has skyrocketed over the past 40 years. Tuition increased by 213% at public schools and 129% at private schools between 1989 and 2019, adjusting for inflation.

In 2019, the average college tuition plus room and board fees cost $49,870 at private colleges and $21,950 at public colleges. Even during the coronavirus pandemic, many colleges and universities are not lowering tuition, even with many schools operating almost entirely online. This decision may contribute to a nationwide decline in college enrollment.

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Trump

  • Reduce the federal role in education by spending less on financial aid programs.
  • Create short-term postsecondary programs that lead to licenses, certifications, or other credentials in high-demand occupations.
  • Reorganize the Office of Federal Student Aid (FSA), which distributes federal loans.
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Biden

  • Offer a free-college plan for families earning less than $125,000.
  • Provide two years of free community college or high-quality training programs.
  • Create a grant program that boosts student success at community colleges.

What Do the Experts Think?

"President Trump's [proposed 2021 budget] fails the millions of students who are struggling to pay for college. While re-prioritizing student aid spending could make college more affordable for students who need it most, the Trump budget cuts our overall investment in college affordability by $170 billion."

"To truly address the current crisis of higher education, especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, student debt needs to be wiped out completely. And to ensure that another student debt crisis does not emerge in the future, all public colleges and trade schools need to be made tuition- and debt-free."

Opening Schools

Outbreaks are a significant problem for many colleges and universities that decided to reopen during the pandemic. Extensive rules on face masks, social distancing, and gathering size haven't stopped the virus from spreading on college campuses.

While institutions have financial and political incentives to open their doors, doing so has created an ethical quandary, weighing public health risks against the cost of school closings. According to Pew Research Center, only 19% of U.S. adults believe there should be full-time, in-person instruction this fall.

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Trump

  • Fully reopen schools, even in areas with high infection rates.
  • Cut federal funding to schools that don't fully reopen.
  • Revise reopening guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to be less burdensome.
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Biden

  • Allow local conditions and school resources to dictate whether or not to reopen.
  • Offer remote learning in areas where infection rates are spiking.
  • Provide public schools with $200 billion to implement added health protections against COVID-19.

What Do the Experts Think?

"All of us in public health knew that as we reopened society, we were going to have disease outbreaks. The goal was to reduce them as much as we could and try to protect the most vulnerable in this process. Schools are not any different from the rest of our society."

"We have a big challenge. The United States is in pretty bad shape right now in terms of the number of cases. And unfortunately, it has to do — to some extent — with central leadership. It's been a problem with the White House, with the way they've managed things, and then by suppressing the CDC. It's really fallen on the states to do their management."

Financial Aid

Financial aid is crucial for college students who need help paying for college. Grants, scholarships, work-study jobs, and loans can cover tuition and fees, room and board, and transportation expenses, making college accessible for low-income students. Students also have to cover an average of $8,600 in out-of-pocket living expenses per year, adding more financial pressure.

The Pell Grant, in particular, is a critical source of funding for low-income students, and financial aid will only become more essential as tuition and fees continue to increase.

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Trump

  • Freeze the maximum Pell Grant award and reduce reserve funds by $2 billion, but expand eligibility.
  • Eliminate the Public Service Loan Forgiveness and Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant programs.
  • End subsidized federal loans (Stafford Loans) for low-income students.
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Biden

  • Double the maximum award amount of Pell Grants.
  • Help students pay for costs other than tuition at four-year institutions.
  • Prioritize the use of Federal Work-Study funds for job-related and public service roles.

What Do the Experts Think?

"The cuts that were proposed [by the Trump administration] to the student aid programs would disproportionately impact low-income students. Those programs — the Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant, which we call SEOG, and Federal Work-Study and subsidized loans — are utilized primarily by our lowest income students."

"There's not enough being done [in the Trump administration] to make sure that, when a borrower calls to say 'I'm struggling,' their servicer properly guides them and has the proper incentives to fix that borrower's problem in a way that sets them up for long-term success."

International Students

Each year, more than a million international students enroll at colleges and universities in the U.S. Many stick around after they graduate, pumping nearly $41 billion into the economy. They often participate in optional practical training (OPT) — a work program that allows international students in STEM fields to work in the U.S. for up to three years after they graduate. In 2019, 223,284 international students entered the program.

But international student enrollment could plummet during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Trump administration's ineffective handling of the coronavirus and strict immigration policies may turn some international students away from attending college. President Trump has also attempted to dismantle the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects undocumented immigrants who entered the U.S. as children from being deported. In 2017, an estimated 241,000 DACA-eligible students were studying in college.

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Trump

  • Block or dismantle DACA.
  • Discourage international students from countries with travel bans from attending U.S. universities.
  • Place temporary restrictions on foreign student work programs to help Americans land jobs during an economic recession.
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Biden

What Do the Experts Think?

"I think it's just wishful thinking that these international students who get these OPT positions are taking jobs away from Americans. That's not the case at all."

"It's [OPT is] an essential part of the package of benefits that we offer to international students who come to the United States. The opportunity to get practical work experience that is aligned with their course of study is a huge draw. The market for international students is a global market, and students who are coming from the major source countries, China and India, have really attractive choices. For example, the U.K. just restored their equivalent to OPT."

Gun Safety

Between 2007-2018, 320 people were shot on college and university campuses in the U.S., with 122 resultant deaths. Many lawmakers and activists have called for gun control plans, including universal background checks or "red flag" laws, to prevent shootings.

The majority of Americans — Democrats and Republicans — support stricter gun laws. In 2019, 64% percent of Americans agreed with the statement, "the laws covering the sale of firearms should be made more strict," according to Gallup.

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Trump

Icon image of Joe Biden

Biden

  • Reinstate the assault weapons ban.
  • Close loopholes on background checks.
  • Regulate the possession of existing assault weapons through a voluntary buyback program.

What Do the Experts Think?

"There are common sense reforms — there are common sense laws that we can pass that are respectful of gun rights but still will reduce this public health crisis in America."

"It's naive to think that any single policy or program can prevent every form of gun violence, ranging from intimate partner violence to gang drive-by homicides, suicides, and mall-rampage atrocities. Yet each form of such violence involves one common mechanism: a gun."

For-Profit Colleges

For-profit colleges have come under heavy criticism in the past decade for misleading and predatory practices. According to an investigation by the Government Accountability Office, several for-profit colleges exaggerated graduates' salaries, provided insufficient professional training, and burdened graduates with too much debt.

Donald Trump's education policies included rolling back an Obama-era rule, known as the gainful employment rule, that protected students from abusive for-profit colleges. U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos also revived a controversial accrediting agency, the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools (ACICS). The Obama administration disbanded ACICS due to "pervasive compliance problems."

Icon image of Donald Trump

Trump

Icon image of Joe Biden

Biden

  • Forgive debt for students scammed by for-profit colleges.
  • Reinstate Obama-era regulations on for-profit higher education.
  • Close the 90/10 loophole that incentivizes for-profit colleges to recruit veterans.

What Do the Experts Think?

"Betsy DeVos's unjustified and illegal repeal of the Gainful Employment rule is yet another example of the Trump Administration's continued efforts to dismantle critical safeguards protecting students and taxpayers in order to further the interests of for-profit colleges."

"Most for-profit colleges have been fighting for their survival with a regulatory administration who was really emboldened to advance a political agenda. And that political agenda from the current administration filtered into the Department of Education."

Evan Thompson is a Washington-based writer for TBS covering higher education. He has bylines in the Seattle Times, Tacoma News Tribune, Everett Herald, and others from his past life as a newspaper reporter.

Image Credits: Alex Wong | Getty Images