The Republicans working on taking President Joe Biden’s job all have said he was wrong to try to cancel up to $20,000 in student debt for a wide swath of U.S. borrowers.
But while they all agree on the Democratic incumbent’s forgiveness plan, which was blocked in June by the Supreme Court, they differ in their proposals for addressing student loans and the cost of higher education. That’s as an estimated total of $1.7 trillion in student debt is held by more than 40 million Americans.
MarketWatch’s roundup below features the Republican White House hopefuls who qualified for their primary’s third debate on Nov. 8 and haven’t ended their 2024 campaigns, along with former President Donald Trump, the GOP race’s frontrunner who again skipped debating his rivals.
The candidates are listed in order of their ranking in the latest national polls, based on a RealClearPolitics moving average of surveys. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina isn’t included because he suspended his presidential campaign on Sunday.
Biden, meanwhile, has taken other actions aimed at providing relief to student borrowers. Officials launched a more generous repayment plan earlier this year that’s drawn the ire of Congressional Republicans. His administration has also canceled $127 billion in student debt for 3.6 million borrowers. Officials are also in the process of taking another stab at mass student-debt relief.
Trump is proposing to tackle college costs with an entirely new institution.
If elected in 2024, Trump said he would usher in a “revolution in higher education,” by launching a free online college called the American Academy. The institution would “make a world-class education available to any American free of charge,” Trump said in a campaign video.
The American Academy would award bachelor’s degrees, and the federal government and its contractors would have to recognize its credentials, he said. Trump said he would fund the institution through taxes, fines and lawsuits levied on “excessively large private university endowments.”
Trump has shown a willingness to battle with traditional, wealthy higher education institutions in the past. The tax reform bill passed during his presidency included a provision taxing private university endowments with assets of at least $500,000 per student. His proposal for the American Academy also appears to get at culture-war criticism of college campuses coming from the right and other Republican leaders, including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who is also vying for the Republican nomination.
“We spend more money on higher education than any other country and yet, they’re turning our students into communists and sympathizers of many, many different dimensions. We can’t let this happen. It’s time to offer something dramatically different,” Trump said in the video.
Trump hasn’t offered much insight on how he would approach student-loan policy if he was re-elected other than to praise his Supreme Court nominees for playing a role in knocking down Biden’s plan to cancel up to $20,000 in debt for a large swath of borrowers. The Trump campaign didn’t respond to MarketWatch’s request for comment.
Congressional Republicans have indicated they’d like to strike down other aspects of Biden’s student-loan agenda, including a new, more generous repayment plan. When Trump last occupied the White House, the Betsy DeVos-led Department of Education didn’t shy away from walking back Obama-era policies aimed at helping student-loan borrowers.
The student-debt proposals from DeSantis include pledging that he “will make universities, not taxpayers, responsible for the loans their students accrue” — if the students’ degrees don’t set them up for career success.
He will “no longer incentivize useless degrees and courses with blanket government loans,” said an economic plan that his campaign rolled out over the summer. The Florida governor’s plan also said he will seek to allow student loans to be “discharged through bankruptcy like any other loan,” referring to how that can be difficult to do today.
“It’s wrong to say that a truck driver should have to pay off the debt of somebody who got a degree in gender studies,” DeSantis said in a speech during the summer. “At the same time, I have sympathy for some of these students because I think they were sold a bill of goods.”
“The universities should be responsible for the student debt. You produce somebody that can be successful, they pay off the loans — great. If you don’t, then you’re going to be on the hook,” he also said in that speech.
How could colleges be made to cover loans? GOP Rep. Chip Roy of Texas, who has endorsed DeSantis for president, introduced a bill this year that aims to impose an annual fine on universities that’s tied to the amount of outstanding federal loans for which their students are not making on-time payments. That borrows from an approach that DeSantis proposed in 2017, when he was a congressman.
The DeSantis campaign didn’t respond to MarketWatch’s request for comment
Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s proposals tied to student loans include not having interest accrue while borrowers are still taking classes.
“Don’t put interest on a loan until after the person finishes their schooling, because if they borrow it their freshman year, they’re already accruing more interest and it’s getting bigger,” said Haley in an interview with a TV station in New Hampshire, a key primary state.
But the issue didn’t figure prominently in a September speech that was billed as a major address about her economic plan. In that address, Haley, who served as Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, criticized Biden’s loan-forgiveness effort but otherwise didn’t say much on the topic. Haley’s campaign didn’t respond to MarketWatch’s request for comment.
Like other Republican candidates, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has said he opposed Biden’s mass student-debt cancellation plan, calling it “regressive.”
The plan put the country in the position of “now effectively paying people more not to repay their student-loan debts than to actually reward people who did,” Ramaswamy said. “That’s not America.”
“I’m glad for the decision,” he said of the Supreme Court’s ruling.
Ramaswamy praised the court’s decision not only because it struck down the student-debt forgiveness policy, but also because it would limit the power of executive agencies. The court’s conservative majority ruled that in launching the policy, the Department of Education exceeded its executive authority.
Ramaswamy has said that he would shut down the Department of Education, if elected. He’s also described the student-debt forgiveness that the Biden administration has pushed through (which is unrelated to the plan the court struck down) as a “scam.”
“It’s also a symptom of what the U.S. Dept of Education does every day: tilting the scales in the wrong direction. That’s why I will *shut it down,*” he wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, in August.
Ramaswamy’s campaign didn’t provide comment, but pointed to previous statements he’s made deriding the Biden administration’s approach to student debt and his plans to shut down the Department of Education.
Over the course of his political career, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has accused colleges and universities of spending inappropriately, driving up costs for students and families.
He reiterated this concern in November during a New Hampshire town hall. Christie argued there that the availability of federal student-loan dollars has provided room for colleges to raise their tuition.
“We need to set up a system of costs in this country where we say to these higher education institutions, you can raise your tuition and fees, your total costs, at the rate of inflation, but if you raise it any more we’re going to take away your federal money,” he said at the town hall.
Previously, Christie was also critical of the Biden administration’s plan to cancel student debt en-masse. Shortly after Biden announced the plan in August 2022, Christie said it would encourage schools to raise tuition.
At the town hall, Christie also floated the idea of using the threat of dinging a college’s endowment in order to push them to keep costs for students and families low.
Many schools “have enormous endowments, multi-billions of dollars in endowments, what are they doing with it?” Christie asked the crowd.
“Maybe the time has come to say your tuition goes up above the rate of inflation, not only do you not get federal money we’re going to start taxing your endowments too.”
The Christie campaign didn’t provide comment, but pointed to the former New Jersey governor’s remarks in New Hampshire.
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