As of April 2016, there were just over 69 million millennials (adults ages 18 to 35) in the U.S., a number almost equal to that of baby boomers, according to the Pew Research Center. This growing group of young people.— which comprises roughly 31 percent of the electorate — represents a huge opportunity for the 2016 presidential candidates at a time when college tuition is skyrocketing and data show that 43 percent of Americans who have student loans stopped making payments as of January 1.
“Higher education has been one of the hot-button issues of the campaign, and with good reason,” says Antoinette Flores, policy analyst with the Center for American Progress Action Fund. “Over the course of the past 10 years, the price of a higher education has risen dramatically. … The cost of college is increasingly out of reach for many, and without action, these problems will continue to grow.”
When it comes to where the Democratic and Republican candidates stand on issues affecting higher education, it is no surprise that Hillary Clinton’s and Donald Trump’s policies differ greatly.
To address the issue of increasing college costs and improve access for all, Clinton aims to make higher education more affordable for students from low- and middle-income households by easing their financial burden.
Under Clinton’s “New College Compact,” every student from a family making $85,000 a year or less would be able to go to an in-state four-year public college or university for free, and all community colleges would offer free tuition. By 2021, she hopes to increase this threshold to $125,000. Furthermore, the Democratic candidate would require that states invest more money in higher education, and colleges and universities would be held accountable for controlling tuition costs.
“[Public colleges] are the backbone of our higher education system and serve 70 percent of students. State disinvestment is one of the biggest reasons that tuition and student borrowing at public colleges continue to rise,” says Flores. “The success of [Clinton’s] plan is dependent on whether or not states are willing to increase investment in their public colleges, educate their citizens, and grow their economies.”
Yet while free college may sound good in theory, some say Clinton’s plan may actually narrow access for the very people it is meant to help.
Critics argue that doing away with tuition at state schools may attract more upper middle-class students — whose families make more than $125,000 per year and who currently attend private schools in larger numbers — to these institutions, believing they offer a better bargain. This would likely create more competition for slots at these schools, leaving less room for students from lower-income neighborhoods who may have lower test scores or poorer academic records.
“What this will do is create a lot of people competing for spaces at public institutions, and it will have a bumping effect,” Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, told The Atlantic. “For minorities and low-income students, it will push them down the selectivity queue toward open admission and two-year colleges.”
Yet Clinton’s aides say she is aware of the risk and would work to devise a tuition-free proposal that requires states to work to enhance racial diversity at public universities — a task that some say may prove difficult.
While Trump has not released specific plans in regard to college tuition costs, he has made clear which policies and proposals he would not support. In talking to the media, Sam Clovis, the national co-chair and policy director of Trump’s campaign, has said that the Republican candidate would fight proposals for tuition-free public higher education. In addition, he would reject President Barack Obama’s proposals for a state-federal partnership to make community college free for new high school graduates.
Despite not having a policy outlined, Trump has expressed concern over rising tuition costs, implying that the federal programs intended to aid students are actually hindering them by allowing colleges to raise costs on a whim. He also suggested the need for a taxpayer program to assist low-income students, without mentioning specifics on how such a program would be structured or where funding would come from.
Student Loans and Debt
Student loans and debt are pressing issues related to the cost of higher education. Students who graduated in 2016 owe on average $37,000 in loans — a 6 percent annual increase — and earn a salary averaging between $18,000 and $43,000, depending on where they live. Further demonstrating the urgency of the situation, according to financial information website MarketWatch, the nation’s outstanding student loan debt grows at an estimated rate of $2,726.27 per second.
Clinton proposes addressing mounting student debt through a variety of approaches:
● Borrowers will be able to refinance loans at current interest rates, graduates will never have to pay back more than 10 percent of their income, and all remaining college debt will be forgiven after a person has made payments for 20 years.
● Delinquent borrowers and those in default will get help to protect their credit and get back on their feet.
● Interest rates will be cut to reduce the burden for future borrowers, not allowing the government to profit from student loans.
● The government will crack down on predatory schools, lenders, and bill collectors.
● Aspiring entrepreneurs will be able to defer their loans with no payments or interest for up to three years. Social entrepreneurs and those starting new enterprises in distressed communities will be eligible for up to $17,500 in loan forgiveness.
● Executive action will be taken to offer a three-month moratorium on student loan payments to all federal loan borrowers, giving them a chance to consolidate their loans, sign up for income-based repayment plans, and take advantage of opportunities to reduce their monthly interest payments and fees.
● This plan would be fully funded by closing loopholes for high-income taxpayers.
“This plan goes far beyond just interest rates. The primary lender of student loans is the federal government, so lenders are not part of the equation. Congress would have to take action to lower interest rates,” Flores says. “While there has been some focus on [this], the most important part of improving college affordability is lowering the price students and families [pay].”
Clinton hopes to address this issue for lower-income students by restoring year-round federal Pell Grant funding to ensure they have the finances to cover summer classes, if needed, and graduate on time. She also proposes the creation of a $25 billion fund to support historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), Hispanic-Serving Institutions, and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs) in building opportunities for students.
On the Republican side, Trump has yet to lay out a definitive plan in regard to student loan debt.
“We are just a few months away from the election and have heard almost nothing [from Trump] about an issue that is very important to young people, parents, and our broader economy,” says Flores.
However, inferences can be drawn from public statements made by Trump and members of his campaign. For instance, in his book Crippled America, Trump suggests that he would eradicate the U.S. Department of Education, which oversees the federal Pell Grant program and other financial aid support for students nationwide.
Additionally, he has been known for his criticism of Federal Student Loan programs, slamming the federal government for profiting off of them. According to Clovis, Trump proposes a complete overhaul of the federal student loan system, which would involve removing the government from the lending process altogether and restoring the role of private banks.
“We think it should be marketplace- and market-driven,” Clovis said, adding that local banks should be lending to local students.
Flores, however, questions what would happen to funding and programs that are critical to the retention and success of low-income and underrepresented students should such a plan be implemented.
“[This] could potentially lower Pell Grant funding,” she says, “[thus] limiting college access and lowering college completion for the students who need it most.”
Accountability, another hot-button issue in regard to the affordability and role of higher education, is one area in which Clinton and Trump agree to an extent.
While both candidates believe that colleges and universities should share some of the risk with lenders, Clinton plans to specifically require them to be upfront about graduation rates and graduates’ likely earnings and debt, as well as how those metrics compare with those of other schools. Her plan also aims to close a loophole in the 90-10 rule, a law that limits for-profit schools to receiving 90 percent of their revenue from federal funds. Lawmakers forgot to include veteran and military education benefits in this pool of funds, which has led many for-profit institutions to market heavily to veterans in order to become 100 percent federally funded. Clinton has also said that she would defend the gainful employment rule to hold these schools accountable for ensuring degree completion and job placement for their students.
Furthermore, Clinton’s proposed three-month moratorium on all federal student loan payments is aimed at helping borrowers avoid defaulting on their loans.
Yet, critics attribute much of the problem to student loan servicers — those who collect and apply payments for the government and who some believe could be doing more to help borrowers — as well as to shoddy government oversight. According to Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis for the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, a moratorium may not do much good in the current system.
“There are constructive and urgently needed policy steps that an administration could take with regard to student loan repayment — not least of all, fixing the Department of Education’s continual bungling of student loan servicing contracts — but a three-month stop-the-clock-for-everybody step is not one of them,” Nassirian told The Washington Post in July.
Clinton has said, however, that loan providers who repeatedly mislead or overcharge borrowers would be banned from contracts to service federal loans.
In this area, Trump has been clear about higher education’s role: Colleges and universities should share the risk. He believes they should play a role in determining loan worthiness factors that go beyond family income, specifically considering students’ future earnings in deciding whether or not to lend. The purpose of this, Clovis said, is to change the way colleges choose whether to admit students and to get them to reflect on the programs they offer.
Specifically, Trump has indicated a desire to make it more difficult for students who want to study liberal arts to take out loans. Clovis noted that institutions should be more careful when it comes to lending to these borrowers as he said these majors don’t provide as much job security after graduation. Many have said that a policy such as this could have detrimental effects on liberal arts schools across the U.S.
Clovis also said that while schools should continue to provide remediation for students who need it, they should not be admitting those who they aren’t confident will graduate in a reasonable time frame and find employment.
Democrats, including Clinton, have argued that some institutions such as HBCUs and MSI should be exempt from this risk-sharing, given their histories of educating students from low-income families who may not have as many financial resources. Trump’s campaign disagrees, stating that all schools should be held accountable.
Campus Sexual Assault
Although incidences of campus sexual assault, including rape, are difficult to quantify — considering 90 percent of victims don’t report incidents — data from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center show that one in five women and one in 16 men are sexually assaulted while in college. And in recent years, colleges and universities have come under fire for their handling of such cases.
As of June 2016, there were 246 ongoing investigations by the U.S. Department of Education into how 195 colleges and universities handled sexual assault reports under Title IX.
Clinton acknowledges the prevalence of sexual assault on college campuses and its mishandling, stating on her website that under her administration, every college would be required to “offer [victims] the support they need — no matter their gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, or race — from counseling to critical healthcare.” She emphasizes the need to ensure transparency and a fair process for all, either through campus disciplinary proceedings or in the criminal justice system.
A central focus of Clinton’s plan is prevention efforts. Indeed, her campaign website reads: “It’s not enough to address this problem by responding only once sexual assault occurs — we need to re-double our prevention efforts and start them earlier. We should increase sexual violence prevention education programs that cover issues like consent and bystander intervention and make sure we have programs not only in college, but also in secondary school.”
Trump, on the other hand, has not released any detailed statements or proposals on this issue.
However, the Republican Party’s platform, approved during the Cleveland convention, does take a stance on the issue — which Trump’s campaign has expressed support for in the past. The document calls for reports of sexual assault to be investigated “by civil authorities and prosecuted in a courtroom, not a faculty lounge.” It goes on to criticize colleges for investigating crimes reported on their campuses, as well as “the White House’s distortion of Title IX to micromanage the way colleges and universities deal with allegations of abuse,” referring to the Obama administration’s interpretation of the 1972 gender equity law.
With each candidate’s platform in mind — and regardless of them — Flores says that the value and necessity of a higher education is becoming more and more irrefutable, indicating a need to address these and other issues to ensure that a college degree is in fact a right.
“Today, a higher education is increasingly necessary to access jobs that pay well,” Flores says. “As a country, we believe in equal opportunity, but we cannot achieve that if higher education is a privilege.”●
Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.