Clinton, Trump Diverge on Higher Education Policy
The differences on higher education policy between Republican Donald J. Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton came into sharp relief during their respective convention acceptance speeches.
Trump, the political newcomer, devoted just a single sentence to education, saying, “We will rescue kids from failing schools by helping their parents send them to a safe school of their choice.” He said nothing about the issues dominating the higher education landscape: soaring student debt, rising tuition, free community college.
Clinton, by contrast, spoke at length about education and her long record of working with children. She touted the benefits of high-quality education and reaffirmed her support for debt-free college and free community college.
Since those convention speeches last summer, the presidential campaign has unfolded like none other before it. It’s been dominated by a steady stream of insults from Trump, targeting Mexicans, Muslims and others, before plummeting to a new low as tapes surfaced of the Republican using sexually explicit language and detailing sexually abusive conduct.
Clinton’s personal email server, meanwhile, have been the focus of incessant political chatter, not to mention FBI and congressional investigations. Trump has called on her to be jailed and said if he’s elected president, that’s exactly what will happen.
In a circus-like atmosphere where heated rhetoric is only growing more intense, it’s no surprise that discussions about policy have become an afterthought. Higher education and community colleges have earned nary a mention from a national media more interested in charges and counter-charges, polls, Clinton’s health and Trump’s indiscretions.
But while they’ve been below the radar, the differences between the candidates on higher education are significant.
Clinton, the former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state, has rolled out extensive proposals on what she wants to do on higher education policy if elected president. Her campaign website contains an entire section on student debt and college costs. Appealing to college-age voters, she has held several events on community college campuses.
Clinton has proposed that students from families making less than $125,000 a year be able to attend a public college or university in their home state tuition-free. She wants two years of community college to be free for students who keep their grades up. This would be paid for by increased taxes on the rich.
Clinton also wants to help the millions of former students struggling to pay back their student loans. Under her plan, students with existing student loan debt would be able to refinance them at prevailing interest rates. Clinton has promised a threemonth moratorium on payments to allow those in debt to take steps to reduce their monthly payments. Those deemed “entrepreneurs” would get a three-year deferment on their loans “so that student debt and the lack of family wealth is not a barrier to innovation in our country.”
Trump’s campaign website is sparse on education policy. He has decried the impact of debt from student loans, but beyond his repeated promise to create jobs as president, he has not offered a proposal to address what he has called “one of the biggest questions” he hears from college students.
Trump has criticized the federal government’s student loan program for making a profit, telling The Hill newspaper in July 2015 “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.” He favors allowing banks, rather than the federal government, to make student loans.
Trump has not been totally mum on higher education. He talked higher education policy during an October campaign stop in Ohio, the first time the subject had been broached during the presidential campaign. In an apparent bid to lure younger voters to his side, he proposed his own income-based repayment plan.
The stakes are high. Younger voters are an important demographic. According to the Harvard Political Review, 60 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voted for President Barack Obama in the 2012 election.
Under Trump’s proposal, the amount borrowers pay per month would be capped at 12.5 percent of their income. All outstanding debt would be forgiven after 15 years of steady repayment. That’s more generous than the Obama administration’s version of income-based repayment. It caps payments at 10 percent of income, while forgiving debt after 20 years.
Trump also pledged to lift unspecified regulations in an effort to reduce costs for colleges, money he said should be directed at reducing tuition. Without being specific, he called for increased accountability from colleges and said the federal government should have the ability to assess colleges on their performance.
Trump’s plan to reduce college debt is unclear. While his platform states he would “work with Congress on reforms to ensure universities are making a good faith effort to reduce the cost of college and student debt,” he has not announced a detailed plan to do so. In a September speech, he said he would pressure institutions with large endowments to spend more on students or lose their tax-free status. The large majority of college students, however, are enrolled in institutions without large endowments.
Trump’s lack of focus on higher education has been duly noted by Democrats. In an interview with Time magazine, vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine said Trump “brags about his own four-year degree from an Ivy League school, he has no intention of offering anyone else the same opportunity.”
Trump’s top policy adviser, Sam Clovis, said earlier this year that the Trump campaign considered higher education to be a top issue in the election. But promises to release detailed policy proposals, so far, have not materialized.
The Trump campaign has made clear it opposes two of Clinton’s signature higher education initiatives: debt-free higher education and free community college. Clovis has termed the proposals “ridiculous” and said they are too costly.
Clinton’s proposals have aggressively targeted younger voters by focusing on student debt. It’s a critical issue for recent college graduates. Total student debt has been climbing for a decade and now exceeds $1.2 trillion. Nearly 7 out of every 10 new graduates of four-year colleges are in debt, and these graduates carry an average balance of nearly $30,000.
“American families are drowning in debt caused by ever-rising college costs,” Clinton said in a news release. “And it is imperative that the next president put forward a bold plan to make debt-free college available to all. My New College Compact will do just that — by making sure that working families can send a child or loved one to college tuition-free and by giving student debt holders immediate relief.”
The issue affects more than students, she said. It undermines the sluggish economy as cash-strapped students delay having families, put off buying cars and homes and don’t start small businesses.
Clinton has proposed allowing student loans to be refinanced at current interest rates, just as borrowers can refinance a car or home loan. Refinancing would help 25 million borrowers across the country, with the typical borrower saving $2,000 over the life of the loan, she said. She wants to reward public service by allowing Ameri- Corps members who complete two years of national service and a year of public service can have their loans forgiven. Teachers who teach in high-need areas or in subjects with teacher shortages — such as computer science or special education — would get enhanced loan forgiveness.
She has also vowed to protect Pell Grants and restore year-round Pell Grant funding so that students have the necessary support they need to take summer classes and meet their goal of completing college.
But whether the plan will ever become reality is uncertain. Clinton’s plan is estimated to cost $350 billion over a decade, to be financed through a series of increased taxes on wealthy Americans that would not survive a Republican Congress. It will be a different story should Democrats win the White House and Congress.