Higher education and the presidential candidates

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by Mary Ellen Flannery

As presidential candidates move their efforts to South Carolina, the site of the next primaries, they might consider a few figures about the Palmetto State: 59 percent of its college graduates have student debt, and the average amount is nearly $30,000.

Is Ted Cruz going to help those struggling with student debt? Not likely. He hasn’t actually outlined “any specific policy proposals relating to higher education,” point out industry analysts at Inside Higher Ed. Meanwhile, the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, has declared he “may cut the Department of Education,” the federal agency that supplied need-based Pell Grants to 44 percent of South Carolina college students last year, a percentage that far outpaces the national average of 34 percent.

Their lack of concern for the 43 million Americans who owe $1.3 trillion in student debt, or the many more who can’t access college at all because of the rising price tag, stand in stark contrast to Hillary Clinton.

“The question is, ‘How do we help all students access college, in a way that makes sense in terms of dollars and cents?’ And I like Hillary Clinton’s answer,” said Long Beach City College counselor DeWayne Sheaffer, who also is president of NEA’s National Council for Higher Education.

“She offers a lifetime of action on issues that are important to NEA members, kids, and public schools,” says Illinois community college professor Jim Grimes, an NEA board member. “I just don’t think anybody matches her combination of passion and experience.”

The details of Clinton’s plan

Clinton’s $350 billion plan, which she calls the New College Compact, for higher education includes:

  • Providing federal grants to states where four-year public colleges create tuition plans that don’t require students to borrow, and where community colleges are free.
  • Requiring states to stop the “disinvestment” in public higher education, which has forced institutions to raise tuition and transfer the costs to students and families. (In fact, 48 states spend an average 23 percent less on public higher education today than they did a decade ago. In South Carolina, it’s nearly 42 percent less.)
  • Cutting interest rates for students who borrow from the federal government, and allowing current borrowers to refinance their loans at those lower rates.
  • Setting family contributions for college expenses at a “reasonable” level, and basing financial need calculations on the expectation that students will work no more than 10 hours a week.

“For many millions of Americans a college degree has been the ticket to the better life,” said Clinton in an August speech. “My parents saved for years for college because they knew that it would be one of the ways they could set me on the path to a better future. College still holds that promise—a lot has changed in our country, but that has not.”

“But here’s the problem, states are slashing education budgets and colleges keep raising prices. In-state tuition and fees for public colleges increased by 42 percent between 2004 and 2014. Whose incomes were raised 42 percent? So families face a painful choice: They either say they can’t afford it and they pass up the opportunities that a degree offers, or they do what they can and that means going into debt.”

For many NEA members, who often earn less than other Americans with advanced degrees, student debt is a significant burden. Earlier this month, New Jersey community college professor Mecheline Farhat told Senate Democrats that her student loan debt is bigger than her home mortgage. Twice, she skipped maternity leaves so as not to lose income. Two days after giving birth she greeted students online from her hospital bed.

“Honestly, it makes me feel as if I were deceived by this ‘land of opportunity,’” Farhat said.

Tenure and academic freedom

Student debt and college affordability aren’t the only issues in higher education that the next president could influence. Faculty researchers also see shrinking federal dollars and politically motivated attacks on their job security. In Wisconsin, failed presidential candidate Gov. Scott Walker last year eliminated a state law that provided tenure to professors, a necessary protection for unfettered research on sensitive subjects. Think climate change, for example.

Academic freedom also is at risk. Republican candidate Ben Carson has said that he would use the Department of Education to “monitor our institutions of higher education for extreme political bias and deny federal funding if it exists.”

Meanwhile, Donald Trump’s own forays into higher education don’t inspire any confidence that he would protect the public good that is public higher education. According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, Trump started an eponymous for-profit university in 2005, called Trump University. When it ran into trouble with New York state education authorities—it didn’t actually grant degrees, nor was it accredited—the name was changed to Trump Entrepreneur Institute.

Reader Comments

  1. I am reading this article, disappointed, because Bernie Sanders is not mentioned, nor is he tagged in it. I believe that he is going to be a wonderful supporter of education, and I encourage more involvement of him in your articles.

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