Higher ed gains prominence in presidential race

...yet UB readers show little support for candidates’ key proposals on tuition and loans
By: | Issue: October, 2016
September 16, 2016

The bold headlines written about free tuition and college debt relief this election season signal that higher education occupies a more prominent place in the 2016 presidential campaign than it has held in past races.

The reason? The economy’s better-paying jobs demand more highly skilled employees, while the public and its elected officials expect a clear return on investment for the costs of college degrees.

“Higher education has been on the precipice of more transparency and regulation for a long time, and we may be approaching the cliff here,” says Anthony Carnevale, director of Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. “The public wants higher education, they want higher education to get them a job, and we don’t have enough money. Something has to happen.”

Is that “something” the free college tuition proposed initially by Sen. Bernie Sanders and adopted by Hillary Clinton? Or perhaps the removal of the federal government from student loans, as Donald Trump advocates?

Free tuition is the linchpin of a Democratic higher ed platform that many observers describe as more comprehensive than the plans touted by Donald Trump and the Republican Party. Democrats would give free tuition at public universities to families making less than $85,000 a year, a figure that would rise to $125,000 in 2021.

Trump, while advocating greater transparency around student outcomes and future earnings, wants banks to handle student loans.

“If you look at the two agendas side-by-side, there’s certainly much more to go on with Clinton’s,” says Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a nonprofit focused on access and student success. “In Trump’s agenda, there’s not a lot of details.”

Free tuition ‘whack-a-mole’

In a University Business survey of more than 600 higher ed leaders, 80 percent said Clinton would be a stronger supporter of higher education; yet only 30 percent support free tuition.

Under the Democratic agenda, all community colleges would offer free tuition and states would be responsible for partially funding the plan at all universities. Institutions would also be encouraged to find ways to cut tuition and other costs.

The prospect has different implications depending on an institution’s ability to handle additional students lured by free tuition, says Nicholas Hillman, an assistant professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“A federal partnership that supplants tuition is helpful for students and affordability, but it doesn’t result in capacity-building for colleges,” Hillman says.

At his own institution, free tuition would likely increase enrollment in-state but the tuition lost would have to be made up by recruiting more out-of-state or international students. And the federal government could—among several other regulations aimed at the unintended effects of free tuition—place limits on international and out-of-state students, Carnevale adds.

“What I see is a game of whack-a-mole coming—you’ll bang one issue down and something else will pop up,” he says. 

For instance, he foresees colleges, particularly state flagships, raising test scores to cope with a potential 20 percent surge in enrollment; such a move could crowd out first-generation and lower-income students. And that might force the government to require colleges to accept a certain number of Pell Grant students. The government could also prohibit reductions in per-student spending.

All public institutions, including community colleges, could become overcrowded, resulting in students getting locked out of courses. “Free tuition is only a good thing if it improves outcomes, not if you just jam more people in the system,” Carnevale says.

Debt and outcomes

The GOP platform says college costs are “on an unsustainable trajectory,” but much of Trump’s higher ed agenda focuses on the federal government acting only as a guarantor for private loans. Both Trump and Clinton have expressed support for making universities responsible for a small portion of each student’s debt. But neither of these proposals enjoy much support from respondents to UB’s survey.

“If the system of loans is unregulated or just in the hands of the banks to make profits, it’s going to aggravate the crisis we already have,” says Gustavo Fischman, a professor at Arizona State University’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College. “The banks need to make money, and the only way you make money is by charging more for those loans.”

The GOP also says community colleges must improve outcomes. Trump wants to rebrand remedial courses as “student success programs” and encourage community colleges to focus on enrolling students who are more likely to graduate, says Cooper. “They would actually become a bit more selective.”

Regardless of who becomes president, higher ed administrators may face a future of increased regulation around improving employment outcomes, says Daniel Levy, a professor at the University at Albany’s School of Education.

“It calls into question what the range of autonomy is for institutions of higher education, compared to what is has been,” Levy says. “I think that’s a widespread worry for administrators.”