In Case You Missed It: Economic Inequality Brings Higher Ed to the Forefront of 2016 Campaigns

By Allie Arcese, Sr. Director of Strategic Communications & Engagement

By Allie Bidwell, Communications Staff

On the surface, things haven’t changed much for college students since 2012, or perhaps even 2008.

The cost of college is still significantly higher than the previous generation, student debt is still growing, and state support for higher education is still lower than before the Great Recession. But there have been milestones along the way that have made college cost concerns rise to the forefront of the upcoming presidential election. Outstanding student debt nationwide hit the $1 trillion mark, and then the $1.2 trillion mark. Continuing state divestment from higher education caused tuition to spike in nearly every state. The federal government, too, has put a greater focus on cracking down on colleges that don’t serve their students well.

“All of those things combined have really left us in a situation where it is a major issue,” said Jen Mishory, executive director of the youth advocacy group Young Invincibles. “When you have that many people holding student debt, you’re going to see that show up in the national conversation and the national spotlight.”

And while education hasn’t historically been a focal point of presidential elections, the 2016 candidates are taking notice of the plight of students and families, making higher education a central issue leading up to next year’s election. Democratic candidates have advocated for debt-free and tuition-free college, while Republican candidates have focused on building up innovation to bring costs down, and creating partnerships with the private sector.

It makes sense that candidates, both Democratic and Republican alike, would focus on college cost and affordability, according to Daniel Shea, a government professor and director of the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement at Colby College.

“It’s part and parcel with the theme of this election – the great issue of our day – and that is economic inequality,” Shea said. “It is very much linked to the growing economic divide in America. Young people and their parents see this bifurcation, and they see that some – a very small percentage – are doing very well, but everyone else is struggling. They believe that the only chance at moving into that other world, that world of doing well and of affluence, is higher education. And as they see the opportunities for higher education shrink because of the cost, it leads to anxiety.”

Education isn’t known to be a make-or-break issue in elections, even at the state level. And when candidates focus on education early on, the fanfare usually fades away after primary elections. But this time around, higher education and college affordability issues have a chance to persist to the general election, many say.

“Last time around, this early on in the cycle I don’t think we heard the topics of college cost, affordability, and transparency come up in anywhere near as prevalent of a way as they are right now,” said Megan McClean, NASFAA’s managing director of policy and federal relations. “That’s a signal that that’s what more and more people are hearing from constituents and on the campaign trail.”

Part of the reason college affordability may become a general election issue is because it’s not just students who are concerned about the cost of college. Parents, too, are feeling the pressure.

An April Gallup poll showed paying for their children’s college education is the top financial concern for parents.

“Given that general pattern, parents' high degree of worry about college funding stands out,” according to a report on the poll. “And the 73% worried about it is notable because not all parents likely expect their child to attend college, although many more parents may hope or expect their child to go to college than actually will. Parents thus face twin challenges of paying for ever-escalating college expenses for one or more children and saving for their own retirement.”

Being weighed down with student debt is a relatable issue, too. Several candidates themselves – including Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat – have shared stories of paying off their own student loans, or loans they took out to help their children pay for college.

“It’s an issue that just touches so many people,” McClean said. “Of all the issues that they talk about … this is one thing that everyone has a personal connection to.”

It’s also a multi-generational issue that makes the topic a “double payoff” for candidates, according to Larry Sabato, a politics professor and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics.

“Parents are very interested in rising college costs, so a sizeable portion of the 40-60 age group will pay attention. Then there are those 18-29, and even some in their 30s still burdened with heavy student debt,” Sabato said in an email. “Democrats want to preserve the edge, and Republicans want to reduce it. Ergo, college affordability is on the top issue list.”

The grassroots nature of highlighting higher education issues will also help the issue last past primary elections, Shea said. These days, winning a presidential election is about mobilization, rather than persuasion, as it has been in the past, he said.

“The question is will higher education help mobilize a base?” Shea said. “Millions of people open their checkbooks every month, and it hurts, and these payments are huge. … I think there will be a bundle of issues centered on this economic inequality, and higher education is an important part of it. We’ve become a bifurcated nation, and that is the issue of this election.”


Publication Date: 8/14/2015

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