Presidential hopefuls tackle the student debt dilemma

Higher Education
by Kent Covington
Posted 8/13/15, 02:15 pm

Republicans and Democrats don’t seem to agree on much these days, but they see eye-to-eye on at least one thing: The cost of a college education is getting out of hand.

Student loan debt has now surpassed credit card debt for the first time ever,” President Barack Obama said recently. “That’s inexcusable.”

Tuition rate hikes have outpaced inflation every year for decades. The average student with college loans now graduates with $35,000 in student debt, more than double the average debt just 15 years ago.

A pair of prominent White House hopefuls recently pitched different ideas to make higher education affordable for students.

In New Hampshire this week, Democratic presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton rolled out her plan to address the student debt crisis. Her proposal could be a key component of her outreach to millennial voters.

The $350 billion plan is aimed at making a four-year college degree more affordable. Borrowing a proposal from the current administration, Clinton wants to make two-year community colleges tuition-free. She pitched her plan as a public-private partnership, calling it a college compact “because it goes both ways. Everyone is going to have to step up. We can’t fix the problem of rising costs and rising debt just by throwing more money at the problem,” Clinton said.

Clinton’s plan requires contributions from state governments, from schools, and from the students themselves, who will be asked to work 10 hours a week.Under the plan, states that guarantee “no-loan” tuition at four-year public schools and free tuition at community colleges would be eligible to receive federal funds from a $200 billion incentive pool. People who already have student debt could refinance it at lower interest rates.

Clinton would pay for the plan by capping itemized deductions, effectively raising taxes, on high-income taxpayers.

While rolling out her own plan, Clinton took a shot on Monday at one of her 2016 Republican rivals, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. She said Walker, “seems to delight in slashing the investment in higher education in his state … making it more difficult for students to get scholarships or to pay off their debt.”

Walker fired back via Twitter: “I’ve frozen in-state tuition rates for four years, while you charged colleges $225K+ just to show up,” a reference to Clinton’s paid speaking engagements at many colleges.

Another one of Clinton’s GOP opponents, Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, said Clinton’s plan would pour billions of taxpayer dollars into an outdated higher education system.

“People who have to work full time, like single mothers who are raising children and are working, also need flexible ways to go back to school. We should be giving people degrees on the basis of what they know, not how many hours they sat in a classroom,” said Rubio, who has been perhaps the most outspoken Republican candidate on this topic so far. He refers to the “college cartel,” a system in which colleges and universities accredit each other and keep competition at a minimum.

And since they have no competition, they can charge whatever they want,” Rubio said at last week’s RedState Gathering in Atlanta. College degrees that don’t lead to well-paying jobs are also part of the problem, he said, advocating for colleges to tell students what they can reasonably expect to earn with their degree.

“And then you can decide if it’s smart to borrow $50,000 to be a Roman or Greek philosopher, because the market for those philosophers has tightened over the last 2,000 years,” Rubio said. He also wants a greater emphasis on vocational training, beginning in high school, for well-paying jobs that don’t require a four-year degree.

Listen to Kent Covington’s report on college debt on The World and Everything in It.