Higher Ed in the Presidential Election

August 23, 2016

By Carrie Warick, Director of Policy and Advocacy

There’s no way to avoid it: 2016 is an election year in full-swing. Unlike many past campaigns, however, higher education is a hot topic this year. College affordability has become part of the national conversation, and here at NCAN, we expect it to remain part of the dialogue for the major party candidates on the campaign trail.

NCAN recommends three immediate policy improvements for the next president to cut the red tape and provide the green dollars to make college an affordable reality for all American families. They are:

1. #FixFAFSA (simplify the FSA ID, eliminate unnecessary questions, expand the number of DRT users, decrease verification)
2. Keep the promise of the Pell Grant program (allow students the flexibility to take courses year-round, tie grants to the cost of inflation, fund the program with mandatory spending)
3. Provide work opportunities to low-income students who want them (make the funds available to students who need it most, expand the public-private partnership to serve more students)

During the conventions this summer, NCAN examined the higher education ideas set forth by the two standard-bearers, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. The only thing they seem to agree on is that student loans are a problem. Otherwise, their approaches to higher education (and to detailing their specific platforms) vary greatly.

Donald Trump, Republican Nominee

At the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, Donald Trump officially became the Republican nominee for president. Trump also named Indiana Gov. Mike Pence as his running mate. Let’s look at what we do know so far about Trump, Pence and higher education.

First, Trump’s top advisor on higher education is a professor at Morningside College in Iowa. In a May interview with Inside Higher Ed, he said the candidate’s primary focus will be reforming student loans, and soundly rejected any move to tuition-free college at any level. On the loans front, expect to see a recommendation to move back to a private lending system, with heavy risk-sharing for all postsecondary institutions. Trump could also allow colleges to set loan limits for students, particularly those majoring in the arts. Community colleges need to focus on students who can graduate, Trump advisor Sam Clovis said.

Pence has spent a lot of time working on K-12 education, but not as much on higher ed. Teresa Lubbers, Indiana’s Commissioner for Higher Education, stated that Gov. Pence worked to connect K-12, higher education, career and technical education programs and the workforce. In particular, Pence worked with Lubbers on a campaign to have adults with some college and no degree return to school.

Finally, Trump has said that the U.S. Department of Education “can largely be eliminated.” Alexander Holt of New America explored what that would look like when Sen. Ted Cruz made a similar claim. The big takeaway: Congress would need to approve such a change and many programs would either need to be eliminated or transferred to another agency.

Hillary Clinton, Democratic Nominee

At the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, Hillary Clinton was selected as the party’s nominee and was joined by her pick for vice president, Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine.

Clinton's official campaign website includes an “Issues” section on higher education, broken down into proposals to address college costs and student debt. Her most-touted program is her promise for debt-free college. Under the policy, families earning up to $125,000 would not pay community college tuition when students work 10 hours a week, and low- and middle-income families would continue to be able to use the Pell Grant to cover the full cost of attendance. Her recommendations include the year-round Pell Grant.

In addition to her debt-free college plan, Clinton would establish a $25-billion fund to support minority-serving institutions. She also promises to support students with children and provide them with necessary resources. (The proposal does not explicitly mention the Federal Work-Study program.) For student loan borrowers, Clinton would allow loans to be refinanced at lower interest rates, establish a payroll deduction for loan repayment, and use executive action to create a three-month moratorium on student loan repayment, which she says would allow borrowers to take advantage of various loan benefits and repayment plans.

The proposal is fully paid for through a proposal to limit certain tax expenditures for high-income taxpayers, Clinton says.

The former secretary of state chose Kaine as her running mate. Kaine has a long history of public service, including serving as governor of Virginia. Earlier in the campaign, he questioned Sen. Bernie Sanders’ proposal to provide free college to everyone, suggesting that there should be an income test. In the Senate, Kaine serves co-chair of the Senate Career and Technical Education caucus and has spoken against college debt. As governor, he supported funding for higher education. Kaine’s wife, Anne Holton, was education secretary for the State of Virginia before resigning last month, and has worked to help foster care students access higher education.

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