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Through the perilous fight: the US election and higher education

It's been easy to have missed amidst the email servers, sexual impropriety, and name-calling, but both US presidential candidates have interesting proposals on higher education funding. Catherine Boyd takes a look.
This article is more than 4 years old

Catherine is a former Executive Officer at Wonkhe.

Much more so than it ever has been in a British electoral season, higher education has had substantive political relevance in this year’s US presidential race. From fees to free speech, universities have told us a lot about this year’s race for the White House.

American higher education is arguably in crisis. Student debt has doubled in the last decade, exceeding $1.2 trillion dollars, and is now the second largest source of consumer debt in America.

As a decentralised system, each state controls regulation, tuition fees and funding allocations of public colleges and universities, all of which is shaped by that state’s particular financial circumstance. Private universities, on the other hand, sit outside of state control and do not have tuition fee limits. Despite this devolved system, the student debt book lies solely with the federal government. All this leaves the government with the difficult task of reducing student debt across an incredibly diverse sector, while respecting each state’s right to manage and administer its own unique higher education system.

The educational background of voters is playing a decisive role in the election polls. In 2012, though Obama won the ‘super-educated’ (graduate degree) vote, Romney won the college educated vote, and thus the overall ‘educated’ vote was fairly evenly split across the parties.

This year, college-educated white voters are deserting Trump in significant numbers, despite traditionally being loyal Republican supporters. Trump’s campaign has instead appealed to less-educated voters. In February Trump famously announced “I love the poorly educated” at the Nevada Republican Caucus. According to recent polls, Trump will win 44% of the non-college educated votes compared to Clinton’s 36%, but he also looks set to be the first Republican candidate in sixty years to lose amongst college-educated whites.

Despite this education divide, both candidates have been pressured to present full plans for how they would reform higher education funding and regulation, particularly as the heavily-indebted portion of the electorate grows.

Hillary Clinton

Clinton has called for debt-free education to be available to everyone. During the Democratic nomination campaign, she held a softer position on higher education funding stating that it should be ‘affordable’. This is more in line with the traditional Democratic Party platform that graduates should pay in part towards their education. However, Bernie Sanders’ success in making Clinton work for party’s nomination has forced both the candidate and the party to change. Sanders campaigned for debt-free education and was notably successful at mobilising college students and millennial graduates. Once Clinton won the nomination, she adopted the policy as part of the Democrats uniting to fight Trump.

The big headline in Clinton’s policy is that by 2021, families with an income of up to $125,000 will pay no tuition fees at in-state public colleges and universities. This will be supported by protection of the Pell grant fund to help low and middle-income students pay non-tuition expenses. On top of this, the Clinton campaign has proposed measures to reduce the burden of existing student debt; including refinancing student loans, income based repayments, and loan forgiveness for public service.

The challenge will be making this work. With each state setting different tuition fees, offering different levels of subsidies per student, and private universities charging increasingly high tuition fees, implementing any comprehensive reform is exceptionally complicated. Clinton has been accused of giving ‘fuzzy details’ about her plan, as it is not clear how it will be funded. Furthermore, there are concerns it may inadvertently cause a rise in tuition fees and others argue it will actually benefit the upper-middle class most rather than lower income families as intended.

Donald Trump

‘The Donald’ himself has remained relatively quiet about higher education, with most policy proposals coming from his adviser Sam Clovis in an interview with InsideHigherEd. Trump does not appear particularly interested in matters of policy, but he also may not wish to draw attention to the ongoing federal lawsuits against Trump University, his stripped honorary degree from Robert Gordon University, or simply a realisation that college funding is not a particularly high priority for his base.

Trump is against debt-free higher education, with Clovis asking “how would you pay for that?”. Clovis argues that universities should spend their endowments reducing the cost of education for their students and in return receive tax exemptions. This policy is likely to benefit private institutions that hold billions of dollars in endowments.

Clovis has also argued that universities and colleges should share the risk of student loans by taking responsibility for a portion of them if they accept federal student aid. By sharing the debt risk, providers would be encouraged into more ‘responsible’ recruitment practices and would have to consider potential future earnings when designing courses. The policy has been criticised for making it harder for liberal arts students to get funding, making this policy a significant threat to liberal arts colleges. But as Clovis says, “I support the arts, but you are not going to get a job”.

Trump’s team also want to re-privatise student loans. As recently as six years ago, federal loans were co-owned between the government and banks but were bought by the government following the 2008 financial collapse when private financial lenders started to withdraw support, risking millions of students’ financial support. However, the Trump campaign argue that student loans should be market driven and returned to the banks’ ownership.

The politics of education and the politics of anger

Both Trump and Clinton’s policies on higher education funding demonstrate how responsibility for higher education funding in the US is awkwardly shared between the federal government, states, universities, private finance, and students and their families. The ugly nature of the presidential campaign and the political gridlock expected post-election is not encouraging for those hoping for comprehensive reform.

Yet, as with the EU referendum in the UK, the election has also shown just how access to higher education is becoming a political chasm in and of itself. Whoever wins will have some work to do to reach out to the other side, but this election has only shown just how pernicious the politics of education and privilege can become.

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