Almost every presidential candidate has taken aim at higher education this election cycle and offered a variety of proposals to fix the country’s postsecondary system — from universal free college to expanded access to Pell Grants. A handful of those presidential hopefuls sat down Thursday at the University of New Hampshire to delve deeper into their ideas to best serve students.
Prior to the debate, a panel of higher education experts broadly discussed the growing popularity of higher education issues among politicians.
“It’s unprecedented the amount of attention that college affordability is getting on the campaign trail,” said James Kvaal, president of the Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), which organized the event with the university. “What has changed is one: borrowing has gone up a lot since the Great Recession … and I think the other thing that has happened is that we have better information now, and the idea that all students graduate from college and go on to do well in the labor market is just not true.”
Daniella Gibbs Leger, executive vice president of the Center for American Progress (CAP) Action Fund, added that higher education has also taken a front seat for candidates and voters because more voters are struggling to repay their loans.
“The issue is affecting more people who are coming of age, [and] who are thinking about what is going to happen with their children when they go to college,” Leger said.
Kvaal noted that it’s important to pay close attention to the policies being debated now because even those that do not get implemented under a new president can still continue to be championed by other politicians.
“There’s a competition among candidates happening now, but there’s also a competition among policy ideas, and there will be a verdict on which of these ideas are seen as political winners and which ones are not, and even if there’s not a majority for free community college, or free four-year university in January 2021, you will see over time more politicians aligning themselves with ideas that are seen as political winners,” Kvaal said.
Standing before a room full of students and parents, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang said the fundamental issue with higher education today is that we have “over-prescribed college in this country and we have under-prescribed trade, technical, vocational [programs] and apprenticeships.”
“We have to start making this work for you all because we left young people in total shambles, and this is something that colleges will not talk about, but there’s a 40-to-44% chance that after you graduate from college that you’re going to do a job that does not require a college degree,” Yang said. “If that happens, do you get a refund? No. Do your parents get a refund? No.”
Notably, Yang has proposed “tuition-free or nearly free” college funded by the government and businesses, as well as a plan to forgive student debt with the federal government buying that debt and allowing students to opt-in to a plan to repay it through pledging 10% of their salary per year for 10 years, after which the balance would be forgiven.
In response to a question about how he perceived the value of a higher education and a liberal arts degree, Yang said he thinks we do need to put more of an emphasis on majors that do not have the largest returns on investment, and reject the mindset that college is only meant to lead to a good job.
“We’re going to have to evolve at some point [from that mindset],” Yang said, adding that he would be “totally fine” if the sole mission of a college was to teach leadership and societal skills.
Following Yang, Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) said he thinks our main objective should be graduating students without debt — specifically proposing to do so first for families making up to $75,000, which he said will be possible by swapping loans with Pell Grants.
Having been a school superintendent, Bennet said he has found that free preschool is “much more helpful” for students than free college and reiterated to the room that he only supports free tuition for community college students.
“I have not supported free college [for all students]. I have supported the idea that we should do what we can to cap the [student loan] repayments that students have to make at about 8% of their income,” he said.
Bennet’s official plans for remodeling higher education also include forgiving $10,000 in student loan debt for up to four years for those working in the public sector and in high-need professions in under-served communities.
Asked about how to address low college completion rates, Bennet said he has supported the year-round Pell Grant, and thinks that every community college should have daycare for student parents. However, he said the high cost of college is still the biggest issue facing students.
“I believe fundamentally that college costs too much. If it didn't cost too much, we wouldn’t have the debt crisis,” he said.
On the other side of the aisle, former Gov. Bill Weld (R-Mass.) said his “thoughts on how to attack the problem of student debt” include repealing the “outrageous provision in existing law” that student loan debt can not be renegotiated — or refinanced. He added that, after a short period of time, he is also proposing to forgive the interest on student loans until a student has a job that pays at least 250% the federal poverty level, and that there should be some form of loan forgiveness after 15 years.
“We really don’t want people to be indentured servants until they are 40 years old,” Weld said.
Weld’s plans also include free tuition for two years at community colleges or universities for workers who have been harmed by the rising job credential threshold.
Asked about the reactions he has received from other Republicans about his support for free college, Weld responded that his plan is not as drastic as some Democratic proposals, as it is only targeted at the most low-income students.
“I’m not a typical Republican,” Weld said. “I'm more willing to get into the weeds, and the older I get, the more problems and suffering I see, and I think the government has a responsibility to everybody. … Also how you introduce things can make a difference. If you just say college should be free, you know a lot of people are going to turn off their hearing aid. But if you say, ‘We’ve got this problem, and this is a step to take on the road to addressing it, and it will cost exactly this much,’ … you’re probably going to be further along the line in getting a consensus.”
Former Gov. Deval Patrick (D-Mass.) said the issues with the higher education system stem from public colleges and universities trying to mirror the funding models of private schools, specifically by raising tuition costs and promising more financial aid to students.
“We have been gradually draining the public out of universities and colleges,” Patrick said.
Patrick said he supports free college at the community college level, and that there should be “a charge, but a charge that regular, working people can handle'' at four-year institutions, adding that the financial aid offered should be weighted in favor of grants over loans.
He proposed to eliminate existing student debt by refinancing loans at current interest rates and by taxing states. He added that he does not think the federal government should “simply supplant public colleges,” but that he would like to find a formula that would both support states with federal resources and encourage them to spend their own funds on higher education.
Pressed about holding institutions accountable for poor student outcomes, Patrick said that while we should take into account the population of students a school serves, “there are lots of young people that are not prepared for all kinds of settings, but where the academic institution is committed to and does succeed in getting them prepared.”
Patrick also expressed support for distance education.
“There’s more than one way to make education accessible and available,” he said.
Keep up to date on what the candidates are continuing to say about higher education with NASFAA’s 2020 Presidential Cheat Sheet.
Publication Date: 2/7/2020