Where do the presidential candidates stand on college affordability?

  • Republican presidential candidate and former Florida governor Jeb Bush speaks with people at the end of the New Hampshire Coalition Against Domestic and Sexual Violence roundtable at the University of New Hampshire School of Law on Thursday, Oct. 15, 2015.(SUSAN DOUCET / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Saturday, January 16, 2016
As presidential candidates canvass New Hampshire, they often find themselves at college campuses, in front of politically engaged students who are keenly aware they will be paying off student debt for years after graduation.

Inevitably, the question arises: If you are elected president, how will you make a college education more affordable?

That’s because New Hampshire is not only home to the first in the nation primary, the students who graduate from the state’s colleges and universities carry the highest average debt load in the country at $33,410 in 2014, according to the Project on Student Debt.

Mike Bellizzi, 26, from New York state, asked the question at Nashua Community College in late December during one of former Florida governor Jeb Bush’s town halls. “I’m sick of paying my student loans,” Bellizzi said. “How, as president, would you make the affordability factor more prevalent for the youth of America today?”

As the young man spoke, Bush nodded his head and said, “yeah” – he knew what Bellizzi was talking about. Bush’s response was typical: sympathetic, concerned, but light on specifics.

What candidates propose to do about college affordability swings wildly between two extremes: from Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s plan for free college tuition funded by taxes on Wall Street speculation, to Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s suggestion to abolish the Department of Education.

The Democratic solution

A little more than halfway through his May campaign kickoff speech in Burlington, Vt., Sanders whipped his crowd into a frenzy with these words: “It is insane and counter-productive to the best interests of our country, that hundreds of thousands of bright young people cannot afford to go to college, and that millions of others leave school with a mountain of debt that burdens them for decades. That must end. That is not what our country is about.”

According to a June U.S. News and World Report, $1.2 trillion has been taken out in student loans across the country, and 17 percent of borrowers are behind in payments.

Offering free tuition to all students at public colleges and universities wouldn’t be cheap – $75 billion per year – and Sanders would pay for it with a tax on Wall Street. Sanders also wants to refinance student loans at today’s lower interest rates.

Former secretary of state Hillary Clinton has made a less dramatic proposal in terms of scope and cost. She has similar plans for loan refinancing, though her “New College Compact” is different.

Clinton proposes free tuition for community colleges and a no-borrow policy for students attending four-year public universities in their state. Students will be able to use Pell Grants to pay for non-tuition expenses, and money from their work-study programs, families and state will be contributed, too.

The cost of Clinton’s New College Compact – $350 billion over 10 years – would be paid for by limiting tax expenditures for high-income Americans.

Martin O’Malley, the third Democratic candidate in the race, has no such plans for a large expenditure. Aside from refinancing student loans, he is most focused on freezing public college and university tuitions, something he did in Maryland as governor a decade ago. The state’s tuition rates went from the eighth highest in the country in 2005-2006 to the 26th four years later.

O’Malley also wants to increase Pell Grants, tie public university tuition rates to a state’s median income, and give federal dollars to schools that provide better results with on-time graduation rates, financial aid and quality education.

While most of the focus is on undergraduate students at public universities, experts say that Democratic candidates may be missing the target. According to U.S. News and World Report, of the students who borrowed $50,000 in 2012, 65 percent were graduate students. In addition, 25 percent of the high-borrowers attended a private, for-profit school and 12 percent a private nonprofit school, versus 6 percent who went to a public, four-year university.

The GOP plan

When asked the question of college affordability last month, Jeb Bush championed community colleges like the one in Nashua, where he stood.

“This is probably the best deal,” he said. “Let’s start by promoting the things that deliver quality at a lower, affordable cost.”

Bush has also suggested making the first two years of community college free. In Nashua, he channeled democrats on income-based loan repayment, and he also talked about rewarding public colleges and universities based on good outcomes. He promised a forthcoming policy plan this month.

Ohio Gov. John Kasich is interested in performance-based rewards for schools, too, and he also promotes tuition freezing, like O’Malley.

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie fall into the camp of income-based loan repayment.

Christie has some additional, slightly different plans. He wants to redirect federal assistance to the lowest-income students, and he also wants to increase higher education transparency by breaking down tuition costs into line items. He’s also suggested giving tax credits to programs that pay down student loans in exchange for community service.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul has suggested making all college expenses tax deductible, like home mortgage payments.

Former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina demands that federal government involvement be removed from higher education, and that college loan financing be privatized. Ben Carson also wants to see college loans move to the private sector.

Several more candidates have suggested loan refinancing programs, like former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and Donald Trump. Huckabee has also suggested reforming the country’s higher education system to more closely match employers’ needs, while Donald Trump said at an Iowa event in November that “some governmental program” would need to be implemented to lower college costs.

Additionally, Trump addressed student debt at an event in Waterville Valley last month with this statement: “I’m going to make sure when you get out of college you’re going to get a job.”

While Republicans have been forced to address college affordability during their events, Bush, Paul, Trump, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum and Cruz do not give the issue any mention under the “issues” section of their campaign websites. Santorum and Cruz have gone one step further, criticizing the heavy focus on college education.

At his Saint Anslem College Politics & Eggs breakfast in November, Santorum laid into the Sanders (and previously, President Obama) approach of trying to get every young person a chance to go to college – he infamously termed it as “snobby” during the 2012 presidential race.

“Don’t get stuck in, ‘I need to have $200,000 of loans that I have to pay back the rest of my life to go to college,’ ” Santorum said in November. “Go to work.”

Cruz, meanwhile, wants to get rid of the U.S. Department of Education all together as part of his “Five for Freedom” plan. On his website the bullet item reads: “Return education to those who know our students best: parents, teachers, local communities, and states. And block-grant education funding to the states.”

His argument – and the one coming from Fiorina, too – may prove a tricky one in a place like New Hampshire. The Granite State is last in the nation for the amount of funding it gives to higher education on a per capita basis at $104.35 for 2011, the most recent year data is available. The next lowest state is Colorado, at $132.18.

(Elodie Reed can be reached at 369-3306, ereed@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @elodie_reed.)