Election 2016: Focus on Higher Education

By Thomas Harnisch, Director of State Relations and Policy Analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities

Political-Button.pngPresidential elections typically include proposals on issues that the candidates view as critical decision drivers for voters. While national defense, taxes, and jobs invariably make the list, other policy topics come and go depending on the unique circumstances of the times. Higher education has long been a third-tier campaign issue, but growing concerns about college affordability and rising student debt have catapulted higher education into the upper tier of policy issues.

In normal electoral cycles, public visibility of the issue would create competing policy visions by the two major party candidates, but this year’s unconventional political contest between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and businessman Donald Trump offers a contrast in substance and specificity. Hillary Clinton has proposed an expansive, ambitious federal effort to fund and reform higher education, while Donald Trump has discussed a few policy concerns, but has not yet outlined a comprehensive higher education plan. Three key federal policy issues in higher education are college prices, student loans, and data collection.

  • College Prices. Secretary Clinton has called for a “New College Compact” with a goal that every student should be able to attend a public college or university without taking on debt. Under her plan, students from families with annual incomes under $85,000 would be able to attend a public college or university without paying tuition; the income threshold would rise to $125,000 by 2021. The Clinton plan would make all community colleges tuition-free and restore year-round Pell Grants.

Mr. Trump has not outlined a comprehensive approach to affordability, but has stated his opposition to Secretary Clinton’s plan—particularly the cost—recently suggesting that colleges could use their endowments to promote affordability. Mr. Trump has said the abundance of federal dollars in the higher education system has led to colleges not containing costs. The Republican platform has also called for policy changes to bring in more competition and spur innovation in higher education, which could lead to lower prices.

  • Student Loans. Secretary Clinton has proposed significant changes to federal financing, including a proposal to allow for federal refinancing of existing high-interest student loans, a three-month moratorium on loan repayment for all borrowers while new repayment options would be implemented, and expanded loan forgiveness and discharges, including help for individuals founding tech start-up companies.

Trump has also made statements suggesting that the federal government is charging interest rates that are too high on student loans, but has not offered a competing plan. However, his higher education advisers and the party platform have suggested a return to bank-based guaranteed student loans.  

  • Data Collection. Neither candidate has taken a clear position on data collection in higher education, including creation of a student unit record system.  

Beyond these three issues, there are many other policy proposals that will intersect with higher education. NASFAA has a breakdown of the candidates’ stances, and numerous news stories on the web are available to help inform voters on these issues as they head to the polls on November 8.  



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