With cumulative student loan debt exceeding $1.2 trillion and the average net price of college attendance continuing to rise, college affordability has become an important issue in the 2016 presidential election. Most of the attention on this topic has been in the Democratic primary, in which Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton both have ambitious plans to make public colleges either tuition-free (Sanders) or debt-free (Clinton) that have played a prominent role in their campaigns.
College affordability has played a much smaller role in the Republican primary to this point, with topics such as foreign policy and immigration getting far more attention from the candidates. Yet the rising price of college is likely to be an important issue in the general election, particularly among younger adults who tend to lean toward supporting Democratic candidates. Here, I examine the leading Republican candidates’ positions on how to make higher education more affordable for students and their families.
The billionaire businessman and political novice has gained attention recently for his foray into for-profit higher education through the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative, which was previously known as Trump University before New York’s attorney general sued to stop Trump from using the term “university.” Trump is also facing lawsuits from former students who claimed that they got no value from their investment of up to $35,000 in real estate seminars.
In multiple interviews, Trump has stated his intention to either close or substantially downsize the U.S. Department of Education, although much of his rationale appears to be due to opposition to the Common Core standards at the K-12 level. In his only statement regarding higher education affordability, Trump has criticized the Department of Education for making a profit on the federal student loan program. Trump shares this view with many Democratic legislators, even though government agencies have different opinions about the profitability of student loans.
Sen. Marco Rubio
The first-term Florida senator has significant experience with higher education, having been an adjunct professor of political science at Florida International University between 2008 and 2015. In the Senate, Rubio has co-sponsored bipartisan legislation that would make income-based repayment the default option for federal student loans and would require colleges to report additional data on student outcomes. He has also co-sponsored a bipartisan bill that would open the federal financial aid program to alternative education providers that can meet certain outcome standards and gain accreditation, although he has also faced criticism for his defense of for-profit colleges whose access to federal funds has been threatened.
Rubio has also supported ideas that are likely to appeal to Republican primary voters but may not be as popular with independent-minded voters in a general election. Like Trump, Rubio has also called for the elimination of the Department of Education. Rubio has noted that some programs currently administered by the federal government should continue (such as the federal student loan program), but they could be absorbed by the Department of the Treasury or other agencies. He has sponsored legislation in the Senate to allow students to use private income share agreements, which function similarly to private loans with income-based repayment, to finance their education. This idea has been criticized as a form of indentured servitude, even though federal loans function in similar ways.
Sen. Ted Cruz
The first-term Texas senator has said relatively little about college affordability, other than noting that he just recently paid off his $100,000 in student loan debt. Like the other GOP candidates, he has called for the vast majority of the Department of Education to be eliminated. Cruz would appoint an Education Secretary whose sole goal would be to determine which programs should remain and give most funding to the states via block grants. In 2012, Cruz indicated that he would keep federal student aid funds in the federal budget, but transfer funding and authority to the states.
As Democrats will certainly keep at least 40 seats in the U.S. Senate (the minimum needed to sustain a filibuster to block legislation) and may gain a majority in this fall’s election, it doesn’t appear that the Department of Education will go away anytime soon. But if any of these three Republican candidates are elected, their actions on affordability—and the implications for both students and taxpayers—are likely to be quite different than what a Clinton or Sanders administration will be proposing.