With just over a year until the 2016 presidential election, candidates are making promises to voters, including plans for college students and the future of the American university. Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both seek to tap into the college demographic that Obama appealed to in his 2008 campaign, with bold plans to lower the cost of higher education.
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Republican candidates are touting their experience when confronted with questions about higher education, such as when former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush tweeted “When I left office, tuition for Florida’s public 4-yr universities was the lowest of any state. Conservative policies work @HillaryClinton.”
When I left office, tuition for Florida's public 4-yr universities was the lowest of any state. Conservative policies work @HillaryClinton.
— Jeb Bush (@JebBush) August 11, 2015
Donald Trump, who has catapulted himself to the top of most GOP polls since he entered the race in June, doesn’t agree with the large profits the government makes from student loans.
According to Trump, higher education is “probably one of the only things the government shouldn’t make money off — I think it’s terrible that one of the only profit centers we have is student loans.” Trump described college students as “swimming in these loans.” He added “I’ll see so many young people and they work really hard for four years. They borrowed money. Their parents don’t have much. They work all together and they mortgage their future.”
Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton recently unveiled her 10 year, $350 billion “New College Contract.” The goal of this plan is to eliminate loans at four-year colleges and universities by “limiting certain tax expenditure for high-income taxpayers” — i.e. reigning in some itemized deductions for high-income families, according to the Washington Post. She also supports Obama’s plans to make community college free.
The “New College Contract” would cap existing loan payments at 10 percent of the debtor’s current salary and would forgive loans that former students had been paying for more than 20 years.
Jeb Bush condemned Clinton’s plan as “fiscally irresponsible,” claiming that the plan will “shift the burden to hardworking taxpayers.”
Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was also quick to attack Clinton. “If I’m our nominee, how is Hillary Clinton gonna lecture me about living paycheck to paycheck? I was raised paycheck to paycheck. How is she — how is she gonna lecture me — how is she gonna lecture me about student loans? I owed over $100,000 just four years ago.”
Scott Walker tweeted “@HillaryClinton I’ve frozen in-state tuition rates for four years, while you charged colleges $225K+ just to show up.” Walker also stated “Hillary Clinton is offering the same bait and switch as President Obama, making promises to students while delivering higher tuition costs and tax increases.”
.@HillaryClinton I’ve frozen in-state tuition rates for four years, while you charged colleges $225K+ just to show up. -SW
— Scott Walker (@ScottWalker) August 11, 2015
While it’s true that Walker froze tuition for in-state undergraduate students over the last four years, he didn’t mention the $250 million he recently slashed from university funding in Wisconsin.
Bernie Sanders, who has recently been drawing large crowds as he travels the campaign trail in pursuit of Clinton, has a slightly different plan. He proposed a financial transaction tax of .01 percent that would mostly affect big Wall Street traders. An estimated $185 billion could be generated over the next 10 years if this plan was enacted, which could be used to greatly reduce the cost of college. Critics of Sander’s proposal believe that it could lead to a reduction in the quantity of Wall Street trades, which could potentially damage the economy.
It’s easy to see why these ideas appeal to young college students who are burdened by crippling debt.
At Boise State University, the average student takes out nearly $25,000 in loans, according to College Scorecard, a new website published by the U.S. Department of Education. It is important to note, however, that Boise State’s four year graduation rate rests at a mere 12 percent, according to U.S. News and World Report 2014 data. This could be partially attributed to the large number of non-traditional and part-time students who attend classes at Boise State. Six year graduation is 33 percent, according to College Scorecard. Either way, it means most students are graduating Boise State with a debt that will take them years to pay off.
In the U.S., in 2015 alone, upwards of $68 billion will be loaned to students and their parents to fund their education. This will be in addition to the $1.2 trillion debt that U.S. students have already accumulated.
Adjusted for inflation, average loans upon graduation in the U.S. have more than doubled since 1995. The cost of tuition has risen 600 percent in the last 30 years. In the same time frame, minimum wage has risen at half that rate.
Why is the cost skyrocketing?
State funding cuts. The ever-present battle for prestige through exclusivity. Inefficient budgeting. The rise of for-profit colleges. All of these have contributed to the constant rise of tuition.
Those hit hardest by the cost-increase are from working class families who don’t have any financial support to help pay for their education.
For years after graduation, students find themselves struggling to repay their loans. Student loans do not default after bankruptcy, and they cannot be refinanced. This can make them difficult to repay in certain circumstances. Many former-students find themselves hounded by collection agencies for decades as they struggle to make ends meet in a competitive job environment.
Stephanie Cox and Dr. Jennifer Black, two instructors at Boise State who co-teach a University Foundations class titled “The History and Future of Education,” believe that making tuition free would not directly translate into a free education.
“Tuition alone is not the biggest obstacle for most students,” Black said. “Tuition at community colleges is almost free right now. The thing that holds students back from completing college is not just the tuition cost, it’s how they support themselves while they’re going to college. It’s not knowing how to navigate the system. Getting into college is certainly one problem, but the problem of understanding how to manage their time, which classes to take, what do I do if problems arise — that is as important if not more important than tuition itself.”
Black looks at all of the resources available around campus, such as the gym and the library and the WiFi, and wonders who would foot the bill for keeping all of these resources open if students had access to them for free. Neither Clinton or Sanders has released enough specifics for their plans yet to answer these questions.
Black also worries that community colleges would be downplayed if four year universities were free. She points out all the valuable jobs and experience that a person can gain at vocational school, and wonders if students would still choose to attend community college if the new “norm” was to go to a four year university.
While the candidates are quick to make big promises appealing to a young, debt-ridden generation, they are slow to release detailed plans. As Jeb Bush pointed out, who is going to shoulder the burden of college expenses? The student, or the blue collar taxpayer? Or should it be Wall Street investors, as Sanders suggests? And as Black pointed out, will government-sponsored college educations of the future include amenities such as a gym and library?
In the meantime, college students across the country continue to accumulate massive amounts of debt, while candidates continue to accumulate massive amounts of campaign funds.
The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University, the Center for Idaho History and Politics, or the School of Public Service.