Among other unique qualities, this presidential election stands out in that it’s putting the spotlight on and taking new approaches to many previously under-the-radar topics — such as campus issues like college student debt and campus sexual assault.
Seeking to appeal to young voters, all major GOP and Democratic candidates have presented plans to address student loan debt and restructure higher education to benefit more young Americans. From tuition-free state universities to heavily subsidized tuition to restructuring of student loans, candidates on both sides have highlighted reform efforts.
The Democrats were the first to take on the policy focus, when U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vt.) entered the race with higher education reform as a key pillar to his platform. His challenger, Hillary Clinton, also proposed her own solution, and leading Republicans soon followed suit.
Now down to the last four in a race that once had 17 — with U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tx.), Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), businessman Donald Trump and Ohio Gov. John Kasich — higher education has been a less prominent focus for the Republicans than the Democrats overall, but an emphasis nonetheless.
Cynthia Wilbanks, vice president for government relations at the University of Michigan, in response to the call by all candidates for universities to take more responsibility for managing tuition costs, said the University is working more closely with students.
“The most important thing is that we have receptive students and families,” Wilbanks said. “One of the ways we have been called to be more helpful is spending more time with what it is students are expected to do in terms of financial aid.”
Among the two Democrats left standing, Clinton and Sanders, both agree there should be changes made to the higher education system and tuition rates should be severely cut, but their plans to do so have several significant differences.
Nonetheless, Public Policy senior Max Lerner, chair of the University’s chapter of College Democrats, said he believes both candidates’ plans encompass core values
“I think that Democrats, for a while now, have shown that they are the party that cares for students,” Lerner said. “They are always fighting for bigger funding, and fighting for lower tuition and making sure that states have enough money to fund their universities.”
College Republicans did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
For Sanders, the main policy push is ensuring all students can attend college for free. As a senator, Sanders introduced the College for All Act, which would allocate $47 billion per year to eliminate undergraduate tuition and fees at public colleges and universities. His current plan would also cut student loan interest rates down to 2.37 percent.
Sanders has said if elected president, he would also expand need-based financial aid and work-study programs to move toward making college debt-free.
LSA sophomore Nicholas Kolenda, president of Students for Sanders, said he believes Sanders’ plan is unique based on its inclusive nature.
“It’s a slippery slope when you exclude people from public goods because they can’t pay for it,” Kolenda said. “We don’t exclude the top 1 percent from public growth because they can privately pay for college.”
This extensive plan would require funding of $74 billion each year. To achieve this, Sanders plans to tax a fraction of a percent on Wall Street speculation.
In contrast, while not planning to make college entirely free, Clinton’s New College Compact plan aims to reign in rising college debt and work with universities to hold them responsible for their tuition levels. She has also said she plans to expand work-study programs. According to her website, Clinton’s College Compact will require families to make an “affordable and realistic family contribution” to the cost of college.
LSA junior Anushka Sarkar, outreach director and event coordinator for Students for Hillary, said she thinks Clinton’s plan is a much more feasible one in comparison to Sanders’.
“I am confident that she will be able to (cut tuition), and there is a difference between an idealistic policy and a pragmatic policy position,” Sarkar said. “Hillary can make it more affordable and refinance student loans — that’s realistic, that’s something you can hold the president accountable for. Free college is not.”
As well, under the Compact, the federal government would give grants to states that commit and cut interest rates on loans — as well as states investing in their own public institutions. Overall, Clinton’s plan is slated to cost about $350 billion over the course of 10 years, which she has said she would raise by closing tax loopholes and expenditures for wealthy individuals.
On the Republican side, the policy issue has received less of an emphasis, and the depth of candidates’ plans to combat student debt range.
LSA sophomore Casey VanderWeide, member of Students for Rubio, said he believes Republicans like Rubio have a better student debt platform because of how their plans would be funded.
“Rubio’s plan is superior to the Democrats’ plan because it does not rely on other people’s money,” VanderWeide said. “Sanders’ Wall Street speculation plan does not guarantee a set amount of revenue. Investors will try to avoid this tax by trading overseas. Not only big investors will be affected by this new tax but also small investors.”
Rubio has laid out several efforts to modernize the current financial aid system that attempt to aid with student borrowing in his approach to student debt — one of the most comprehensive among the GOP — saying he will overhaul and modernize it. In particular, he plans to consolidate the multiple tax benefits written into the Internal Revenue Service code for students into one provision for post-secondary education, to help with applying to federal financial aid. He also plans to make all financial aid information available in one location to reduce the burden and time families spend searching for this information.
Last year, President Barack Obama’s administration made significant changes to FAFSA, the free application for federal student aid, in an attempt to make it easier to use, including opening up the application earlier and using a family’s income information.
VanderWeide said he thought Rubio’s particular attention to student debt and higher education stemmed from his background.
“I think Rubio, out of all the Republican candidates, has the most thought-out student debt platform because, when he graduated law school, he had $100,000 in student loans,” VanderWeide said. “Marco Rubio did not come from a family of money… He understands what students are going through because he has gone through the process.”
Rubio has also discussed several other main policy ideas to tackle student debt, including establishing income-based repayment for federal student loans — a partial system for which already exists under the Revised Pay As You Earn Plan, which debuted in December 2015. As well, the senator’s plan includes a provision to allow students to apply for the “Student Investment Plans” from approved investors to help young Americans finance their education.
Kasich has also laid out several proposals to aid with higher education, largely based on his time as governor of Ohio where student debt is above the national average according to Forbes. During his time as governor, the state’s universities have stabilized tuition costs at their public universities, and increased funding to universities with high graduation rates under his creation of Ohio’s Task Force on Affordability and Efficiency. Whereas many states allocate funds to higher education institutions based off of the number of students who attend, schools in Ohio receive rewards for the number of students who graduate.
The Task Force presented recommendations such as incentivising students to take at least 15 credits a semester and encourage universities to build up their summer programs. In addition to encouraging students to stay on track to graduate in four years, Ohio has worked to keep tuition rates low and has gone as far as addressing the cost of textbooks.
During his campaign, Kasich has said he would like to encourage programs like that in place in Ohio to expand nationally — particularly his program which allocates funds based on graduation rather than enrollment. He has also said he intends to increase opportunities for students to receive college credits while still in high school to help reduce the cost of the student’s future tuition.
Among the other two candidates left in the GOP race — Cruz and Trump — neither have introduced significant policy plans, though both have mentioned the issue.
When he ran for the Senate in 2012, Cruz stated that student loan debt should be a state issue rather than a federal government issue. During this same campaign cycle, he called for the abolishment of the U.S. Department of Education, reiterating that student debt policy decisions should be in the hands of state and local governments.
During his presidential campaign, he hasn’t expressed much beyond that on the topic, though he has noted that similar to Rubio, he graduated with $100,000 in debt.
“I just paid off my student loans five or six years ago. Economic growth is critical to young people because if we want this generation to be able to pay off their loans and develop the skills to live the American dream, we’ve got to return to an environment where small businesses are growing and flourishing, and creating jobs and opportunities,” Cruz told theSkimm earlier this year.
Similar to Cruz, Trump has yet to lay out a concrete plan for higher education and student debt. However, he has claimed several times that the government unfairly profits from the billions of student loans.
When announcing his candidacy, Trump said, “People are tired… of spending more money on education than any nation in the world per capita.”
Other than that statement, Trump hasn’t said much else regarding his plans for debt should he be elected into office, though like Cruz he has suggested cutting the Department of Education.
The Republican frontrunner, has, however, drawn controversy over his own involvement in the higher education industry — his for-profit college, Trump University, now the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative, is currently facing a legal suit for possible illegal business practices.
As many as a 25 percent of the students have requested a refund for their tuition costs to the University, according to CNN.
Regardless of who they’re voting for, students see higher education being discussed in the campaign as positive and with the potential for long lasting change.
“I think we’re at a crossroads,” LSA sophomore Eleonore Edgell said. “This election is very important because I think we have the potential to create policy within these four years that can create lasting impacts for the next twenty or fifty or a hundred years. Voting is really important.”