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Where the Candidates Stand on Higher Education


Where the Candidates Stand on Higher Education

February 10, 2016

After a nail-biter finish in Iowa, the New Hampshire primary ended up being a blowout, with Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump each finishing about 20 points ahead of their closest rivals. As the race moves to South Carolina and Nevada, it is worth pausing for a moment to understand what might come to pass in the world of higher education during each candidate’s presidency. As one might expect, the contenders have quite a range of ideas.

On the left, Bernie Sanders promises to abolish tuition at public colleges and universities, while on the right Marco Rubio supports expanded options for private finance of college education. Encouragingly, several of the proposals endorse expanding higher education options beyond the traditional four-year model—recognizing that a college degree is not for everyone at that public policy should not discourage alternative education arrangements.

This column looks at the proposals on higher-education from the four candidates who have put forward detailed plans: Jeb Bush, Hillary Clinton, Marco Rubio, and Bernie Sanders. I have divided the candidates’ proposals into several areas of reform: student loans and grants, college accountability, tuition fees, private investment options for college finance, accreditation reform and alternative education, information access, new revenues, and other major proposals. While the following is not an exhaustive list of the candidates’ ideas, it conveys the essence of each plan.

Jeb Bush

Bush’s higher education plan is solid, as I have written previously. His proposal to replace student loans and grants with an income-based repayment system capped at $50,000 would have the dual effect of easing the burden on student borrowers and also holding the line on tuition increases by colleges, which would no longer have access to an unlimited fountain of taxpayer money. Bush should, however, expand options for private financing of college tuition, particularly income-share agreements (as his rival, Marco Rubio, has proposed). Private investors can introduce more accountability for colleges, since they are putting up their own money and thus have a strong incentive to walk away from institutions with a poor track record.

Marco Rubio

Just as Bush should borrow from Rubio’s proposal to expand private college-finance arrangements, Rubio could take a page from Bush’s plan and place a cap on federal student loans. A growing body of evidence has shown that federal student loan programs have driven major increases in tuition at public and private colleges alike. This makes the case for a cap on federal loans and grants to hold the line on tuition increases. Moreover, such a cap would strengthen another leg of Rubio’s higher education stool: students would be more likely to take advantage of private college-finance arrangements if the federal program were limited. This would be good for students—private investors, with their own money on the line, would have more incentive to hold colleges accountable to student outcomes. 

Hillary Clinton

Clinton’s plan is welcome for its detail, but it mostly goes in the wrong direction. Graduation rates at community colleges are too low, and making them free would shuffle more students through institutions that fail most of them. While cutting interest rates on student loans would be popular among borrowers, such a policy would likely just drive up tuition even further by enabling students to borrow more. There is also reason to be skeptical of Clinton’s tax program to fund her ideas—the Tax Foundation estimates it would raise only a fraction of the projected revenue after taking into account the effect on economic growth.

While Clinton’s (and Bush’s) proposal to make colleges accountable for student defaults would improve outcomes, it might also result in fewer students being admitted to college. That would be a positive thing if it encourages the development of career paths that don’t run through college. However, both proposals ought to expand on what they would do about these alternatives to the traditional college model.

Bernie Sanders

The centerpiece of Sanders’ plan is the abolition of tuition fees at public colleges and universities. I have criticized this approach before, as it does little to address the central problems with higher education—too few students graduate, and too many degree holders are underemployed. Moreover, making college free would draw many students onto the public college track, even if they might be better suited for private college or other career paths—leading to a distorted allocation of human capital. Sanders’ financial transactions tax also merits scrutiny—if it succeeds in curtailing high-frequency trading, as the candidate hopes, it will not raise nearly as much revenue as intended. Some economists believe it might even lose revenue.


Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio both have strong proposals which could benefit from more detail and additional provisions to create a more holistic approach to solving higher education’s problems. Hillary Clinton is correct that colleges should have a financial incentive to ensure good student outcomes, but most of her other proposals fall flat. Bernie Sanders seems to miss the problem entirely. While most of the candidates pay lip service to the idea of developing alternate education models (such as apprenticeships, online education, or competency-based systems), the plans need more detail on how, precisely, they would bring this about.


Preston Cooper is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. He is the author of the new issue brief, "Reality Check: Only One-Third of College Enrollees End Up In Jobs Requiring College Degrees." You can follow him on Twitter here.

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