How Do All of the Presidential Candidates Feel About Free College? Here's Your Answer.

Posted by Maica Pichler on June 29, 2015 at 11:12 AM

The 2016 Presidential Election looms in the distance like a rising sun ascending over a wide desert horizon. It creeps slowly into mainstream conversation as the country looks to new leadership for the nation’s various ills and maladies. 

Whereas the Democrats seem to be focused on two contenders – Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders – the Republicans have no dominant front runner, although some polls have Jeb Bush pulling ahead of other candidates. Regardless of who gets their party’s nomination, candidates from both parties will have to have clear policy positions and proposals on higher education if they are to successfully court the Millennial vote. Millennials concerns regarding higher education – mounting student debt, the affordability of college, the role of college in the economy of tomorrow – will certainly be one variable influencing who they vote for.

Although some 2016 presidential candidates have been very vocal about what they believe should be reformed in America’s higher education system (Bernie Sanders and Marco Rubio), others have not spoken directly on that topic at this time (Bobby Jindal), so it’s difficult to predict their position beyond inferences based on their higher education related activity elsewhere. Nonetheless, as the 2016 campaign narrative unfolds, every candidate will have to be clear and direct about what they believe is the solution to the rising cost of college, the Student Debt Crisis, and the relevance of a traditional college education. The following is a concise summary of the most up-to-date information on some of the 2016 candidates’ positions on higher education.

No candidate has been as bold or upfront with his positions on higher education than Bernie Sanders. The Vermont Senator and openly declared Socialist wants to make college education free by having Federal funds work in conjunction with state funds to make the first four years of college free at state public universities. In addition, he would lower student loan interest rates and allow students to refinance their loans for lower rates. He would also expand Federal Work Study programs to more schools, especially schools that have more low-income students. His proposals would be funded by a Robin Hood Tax that would tax various Wall Street speculation transactions.

Marco Rubio, another vocal candidate regarding higher education, may not have as a detailed plan as Bernie Sanders, but he has stated his positions and proposals clearly, utilizing his own student debt narrative to reach out to Millennial voters and establish legitimacy and expertise on the topic. Some of his proposals include passing a law that would force schools to tell students how much they might earn with their proposed major, making a loan repayment system based on a borrower’s income the norm, and an interesting proposal to have students link up with private investors who pay for the student’s education with the student pledging a certain amount of their future income to be set aside to pay the private investors but not amounting to the full amount the investors paid.

Hilary Clinton, the favored potential Democratic nomination, has stated that the public can expect her higher education plan to be unveiled soon.  In addition, she has come out in support of President Obama’s free community college plan, America’s College Promise. Moreover, her first presidential run in 2007 saw her advocating for a Student Borrowers Bill of Rights, a series of protections for students against lending companies. A similar sentiment echoing 2007’s student loan debt advocacy recently popped up at one of her campaign stops. In New Hampshire she stated, “We create vicious circles of debt for our youngest citizens who should be at the forefront of shaping the economy for tomorrow.” Whenever her plan is unveiled, it is certain that Millinnial voters will be ready to hear her proposals for alleviating a debt crisis that disproportionately affects them.  

Although Jeb Bush has recently made public statements calling for illegal immigrants studying at public universities to pay the same tuition rates and fees as in-state residents – a possible appeal to Hispanic voters – he has not made any new statements as of the moment regarding his campaign’s proposals for higher education. However, past statements indicate that Jeb Bush wants to disrupt the current higher education model as it stands to give more power to consumers in a globalized marketplace. More time is needed to see if his message of disrupting the current higher education model will resonate with Millennial voters who may want answers from his campaign on the student debt crisis and controlling the price of tuition.

Rand Paul has called for making a college education tax-deductible, but he has not stated how this would work. Some articles – inferring from current tax policies regarding education deductions – call his policy dangerous and overly favorable to the rich. How feasible his program may be or the potential damage and benefit it may bring to some, remains yet to be seen. However, it is certainly an interesting approach to court the Millennial voters that might be interested in his libertarian ethos.

Other candidates like Mike Huckabee and Lindsey Graham have come out in favor of giving students the ability to refinance student loans, but nothing else has been said from their campaigns about higher education beyond this. Bobby Jindal has not said much about his campaign’s policies for the future of America’s higher education, but his behavior as Governor of Louisiana doesn’t indicate a desire to use government as a means to alleviate the student debt crisis or control the cost of college.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, another Democratic candidate, has a successful record of controlling the cost of tuition in Maryland. Moreover, he has recently announced a bold initiative to make college debt-free within five years. To accomplish this, he will use a multidimensional strategy that addresses various factors that contribute to student debt like controlling the cost of college at the State level, encouraging quicker graduation rates, and expanding Pell Grants and Work-Study programs. His full plan will be unveiled on Wednesday, July 15th. The other announced Democratic candidate, former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chaffee, has yet to make any pronouncements on issues relating to higher education.

The 2016 presidential campaign season is beginning. Student Debt, the cost of college, and the role of higher education for America’s future are hot button issues that no viable candidate will ignore. The increasingly important Millennial vote will be courted from all candidates – Democrat and Republican. While some candidates have been explicit with their higher education platforms (Sanders and Rubio), others have taken middle-of-the-road positions on student loan refinancing designed to appeal to everybody (Huckabee and Graham), and some have not made official statements yet, so we have to look to their record elsewhere for inferences as to what types of polices they may possibly lean to (Clinton and Jindal). As the 2016 Presidential Campaign unfolds, serious contenders would be wise to have a detailed plan for addressing the rising cost of college that will appeal to – or at the very least provoke thought among-- Millennial voters.

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The Campaign for Free College Tuition is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization established in the State of Washington in 2014 to educate parents, students, the higher education community, policy makers and taxpayers about efforts needed to fundamentally reform our nation’s system for financing higher education. This website and CFCT’s educational outreach activities are made possible through generous individual and foundation support.