As Michigan gears up for the March 10 Democratic primary, University of Michigan students are comparing the positions of front-runners former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. on issues relating to higher education. 

Affordability of four-year colleges and universities has been an important topic throughout the primary. Both candidates’ platforms include measures to increase affordability and reduce student loan debt, focusing heavily on the expansion of Pell grants, a federal subsidy provided to students from low-income families. 

According to Biden’s published positions on higher education, Biden thinks college should be used as a pathway for people to move into the middle class. To make college more affordable, he promises to double the maximum value of Pell grants in order to offer additional financial aid specifically towards low-income and middle-class students. 

Biden’s platform also says he wants to further loan forgiveness for people working in public service and continue programs such as the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, which forgives debt to students entering public-service related careers. His platform also discusses promoting an income-based student loan repayment plan and protecting GI benefits for veterans and their families. 

LSA freshman Andrew Schaeffler, co-founder of Students for Biden at U-M, believes Biden’s policies on increasing Pell Grants would directly impact University students by increasing access to education. He also said Biden’s plan for loan forgiveness would affect many students, especially those hoping to work in public service.  

“I think on a broader scale, just having a president that’s focused on these things (is important),” Schaeffler said. “Having a president that will appoint a secretary of education that has been on the front line … will do a lot in terms of having our concerns heard.” 

Sanders’ plan to increase affordability promises to guarantee tuition-free and debt-free public colleges, universities and trade schools, as well as to cancel all student loan debt, expand the Pell grant program and triple funding for work-study programs.

Porter Hughes, LSA freshman and co-founder of Students for Bernie 2020 at the University, views Sanders’ plans as a way to increase the amount of middle- and working-class people who are pursuing higher education. He said he thinks it would increase the amount of diversity on campus. 

“Cost is a huge barrier in terms of access to higher education and Bernie has the best plan going forward to completely eliminate that barrier,” Hughes said. “I feel like we would see much more diversity in terms of racial and ethnic diversity and socioeconomic diversity at the University of Michigan if this policy was in place.” 

According to the University’s Office of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, 65 percent of current students identify as Caucasian. 15 percent identify as Asian American while a combined 12 percent identify as African American, Hispanic and Native American, with the other 10 percent being other/unknown. U.S. News reported that 19 percent of undergraduates at U-M Ann Arbor are receiving Pell Grants, with the number being closer to 39 percent at U-M Flint.

LSA sophomore Hazel Gordon said Sanders’ goal to make four-year colleges and universities affordable is the main reason she supports him. Gordon said she has witnessed how the University community is affected by Ann Arbor’s cost of living and the burdens of debt on college graduates and believes Sanders’ plan would alleviate the burden on students with lower socioeconomic statuses.

“I have a lot of friends who are only able to go to Michigan on financial aid,” Gordon said. “When it comes to paying rent in Ann Arbor and being able to afford food, it’s not easy. Most people in my generation can’t buy a house or have kids … because (of) debt.”

According to President Donald Trump’s campaign website, Trump has prioritized the expansion of the Pell Grant program by distributing the grants year-around rather than just in the fall and spring semesters. He has also publicized the changes made to the Federal Student Aid processes and says the process is now easier to navigate, has better customer service and is more accessible to students. 

During his time as President, Trump has discussed making funding for higher education more accessible but has also worked to cut Federal Student Loan funding by imposing caps on the number of loans students can receive for higher education. The Trump administration has reduced programs allowing parents to take out loans for a child’s education and wants to end the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program. Trump has also promoted for-profit colleges and has ended Obama-era regulations on these institutions, making it easier for them to receive federal funds.

Nick Schuler, LSA freshman and freshman chair of the University’s chapter of College Republicans, discussed Trump’s work on higher education, saying he believed the president wants to help students afford college. 

“The president believes in the power of higher education,” Schuler said. “That being said, he and College Republicans believe students should pursue whatever post-high school education/training/work is best for them. Not every student is the same, so not every student should follow the same path.” 

Schuler also commented on the positions of Sanders and Biden, saying he did not believe their positions would help students. 

“The radical Democrats can offer free this and free that, the American people know better,” Schuler said. “If you work hard and save for college, you don’t need free college. The government and private institutions provide many tools to pursue higher education. Some 3 billion dollars of scholarship money goes unclaimed. It doesn’t make sense to tax ourselves into poverty in order to provide free higher education if there is 3 billion floating around.” 

Funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other minority-serving institutions

The two candidates have also discussed the role of Historically Black Colleges and Universities and other minority-serving institutions. Biden promises to make attendance at these institutions more affordable by increasing investments and improving their infrastructure, making them more competitive among other four-year colleges and universities.

Schaeffler said he was supportive of Biden’s efforts to bring attention to HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions.

“Being able to put funds and attention to those types of institutions will not only improve them but bring that recognition to them,” Schaeffler said. “At the moment, there are funding disparities among public institutions and those, so I think that’s another problem that would be remedied or close to remedied under Biden’s plan.”

Sanders has also said he would support HBCUs and minority-serving institutions, saying he will give $1.3 billion in federal funding to support about 200 schools. Hughes said he thinks funding for HBCUs and minority-serving institutions will help more students attain higher education and provide them with more opportunities.

“It is important that we close the racial equality gap,” Hughes said. “Not only in general but in education. There’s a really big equality gap and achievement gap, and we want to be able to close that by funding institutions that help minority students, (especially those) who might otherwise not receive the help … (or) the same opportunities.”

In Dec. 2019, Trump signed a bill to provide $250 million per year for HBCUs and other minority-serving institutions. The bill was supported by members of both major political parties. 

Schuler said he believed the increase in funding would be good for the institutions receiving it and compared the president’s actions to those of Democratic leaders. 

“It will guarantee those institutions have the resources to provide a good education for their students,” Schuler said. “The president is a fighter for all students, something the Democrats aren’t. While I am not a student at a Black college, I would be ecstatic knowing the quality of my education will be maintained and expanded under the president.”

Trade schools and community colleges

Under Sanders’ policies, trade schools and community colleges would fall underneath his College for All Act, which will allocate at least $48 billion per year to eliminate all tuition and fees, essentially making higher education free for all.

A supporter of the College for All Act, Hughes said he is excited that all forms of education will be included in the act.

“I think (trade schools and community colleges) are equally valuable routes of education as a four-year university,” Hughes said. “it’s important that we fund all forms of education.” 

Biden hopes to provide two years of free community college or other training programs, create a new grant program to help community colleges support students and expand financial aid to be applied to expenses beyond tuition and fees. Biden also plans on a $50 billion investment in workforce training.

By bringing attention to community colleges and their needs, Schaeffler said Biden is taking a positive step towards removing the stigma around community colleges and trade schools. 

“I think (community college) is extremely important, especially for my high school,” Schaeffler said. “In an area like mine, where (for) a lot of students, it was almost expected that we were to go to a four-year university as opposed to a trade school or a community college. I think that by publicizing (going to a community college), it normalizes that.”

Funding educational plans

Sanders says he will fund his educational plans by placing a tax on Wall Street transactions. The tax includes a 0.5 percent tax on stock trades, a 0.1 percent fee on bond trades and a 0.005 percent fee on derivative trades. This speculation tax aims to raise $2.4 trillion in 10 years.

Hughes said placing this tax on Wall Street is justified and will help pay for student education.

“I think this is really important because it provides adequate funding,” Hughes said. “It also keeps a check and regulation on the same people who destroyed our economy back in the 2008 financial crisis.” 

According to Forbes, Biden will pay for his plans by capping itemized deductions at 28 percent and “eliminat(ing) the practice of stepped-up tax basis.”

The Tax Foundation describes the step-up basis as “when a person leaves property to an heir, the cost basis of the bequeathed asset receives a ‘step-up’ in basis to its fair market value at the time of the original owner’s death.” In other words, people must pay taxes on their investments based on value on the date the investment was made and the value when sold. Should the person die and transfer their investments to their heirs, the value of when the investment was made becomes that of the current market price. Biden would change the current tax law to avoid this loophole. 

Schaeffler said one of the main reasons he supports Biden is because he believes Biden’s proposed methods are realistic and achievable — he said he thinks Sanders’ plans are unachievable.

“When you look at something like free college for all, eliminating all student loan debt, on the surface, that sounds amazing,” Schaeffler said. “Without a clear way of paying for it and a clear way for that to pass through the United States Senate and United States House of Representatives, at that point, it’s just a plan. I don’t think there’s a way to implement it.”

Reporter Emma Ruberg can be reached at Reporter Francesca Duong can be reached at

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