White House hopefuls set out their higher education stalls

Reducing burden of student debt is top of shopping list as candidates jockey for position

July 25, 2015
Students at Harvard University campus gate, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2015
Source: Getty
Toll roads: calls for ‘debt-free’ higher education are gaining traction, but definitions of this objective vary significantly

Summer may be quiet on US university campuses, but it has been busy in higher education politics, with White House hopefuls from both major parties proposing some form of free university tuition or programmes to reduce the need for students to borrow.

The offers come as a bill introduced in Congress aims to create two years of tuition-free university study nationwide, and although it has been given no chance of succeeding, president Barack Obama has weighed in to support it. Meanwhile, at least two of the 50 states plan to lower public university tuition fees in the autumn for certain students, and several universities will freeze them.

Whatever the likelihood that presidential candidates’ proposals will ever be put in place, their attention to the topic and some states’ decisions to cap or reduce tuition fees point to an intensifying backlash against fast-rising university costs and an unprecedented national focus on making higher education more affordable.

Chris Christie, New Jerseys governor and a Republican presidential contender, said the debt incurred by university students is one of the top two issues voters ask him about, second only to fears about Islamic State.

Many of the hopefuls for next year’s presidential election say their interest comes from personal experience with paying their own or their children’s tuition, marking a generational shift. This crop of candidates has faced the fastest rate of increase in the cost of higher education, and the highest levels of postgraduate debt, in history.

The most dramatic plan so far has come from Bernie Sanders, a senator and self-described socialist, whose campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has picked up unexpected momentum. Mr Sanders has proposed that public universities nationwide be made entirely tuition-free, using revenue from a tax that would be imposed on transactions by investment firms.

“Countries like Germany, Denmark, Sweden and many more are providing free or inexpensive higher education for their young people,” Mr Sanders said. “They understand how important it is to be investing in their youth. We should be doing the same.”

Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has also called for lowering the cost of university tuition, although she has yet to offer specifics. In a television interview, her campaign manager said the former secretary of state thinks that higher education should be debt-free, a concept that is being pushed aggressively by several advocacy groups.

The definition of “debt-free” varies depending on who is describing it. Some say it means that tuition fees should be waived; some that students and their families should be asked to pay what they can, short of borrowing; and others that new means of financing university education without using loans should be found.

Another Democratic candidate, former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, wants to cap tuition and increase federal financial aid in a combination of measures he said would remove the need for students to borrow. “Our ultimate goal must be for every student – most especially low-income and middle-class students – to be able to go to college debt-free,” Mr O’Malley wrote in an essay published in The Washington Post.

Mr O’Malley has said that his family borrowed more than $300,000 (£192,000) to pay for his own children’s tuition fees through university and graduate school. Ms Clinton has said she had to take out loans to cover her law school education. Financial disclosure documents show that senator Marco Rubio, who is running for the Republican nomination, had at least $150,000 in student loan debt, which he said he repaid with the proceeds from a book deal.

Mr Rubio has proposed easing the financial strain of higher education by letting private investors pay students’ tuition fees in exchange for a percentage of their postgraduate income. He also wants to lower the cost by breaking up what he calls the higher-education “cartel” and encouraging new, lower-cost forms of educational credentials.

One of Mr Rubio’s many Republican rivals for the presidential nomination, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, has dismissed the idea of free tuition as “more free stuff” – meaning another government entitlement – and instead wants to promote lower-cost online learning and to require universities to give students accurate information about graduate job and earnings prospects that largely aren’t available to them now.

Among the other Republican candidates, Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has called for universities to take responsibility for a small percentage of students’ loans, giving them an incentive to keep costs down; Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal wants to encourage competition among lenders to reduce student loan costs; and activist and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson has proposed making universities responsible for paying the interest on their students’ loans, saying: “That’ll change things in a hurry.

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