How Conventions and Party Platforms Shaped (and Re-shaped) Candidates’ Higher Ed Plans

Election 2016
Posted By Derek Johnson on August 9, 2016 at 8:51 am
How Conventions and Party Platforms Shaped (and Re-shaped) Candidates’ Higher Ed Plans

Early in the election process, many Americans vote for their chosen candidate based on the views and positions they put forth during the primaries. What some may not have realized is that each party’s national conventions plays a significant role in shaping (and re-shaping) the policies the nominees take to the general election.

Think of the platform as a marriage contract between the candidate who won the primary and the party he or she hopes to lead. In an ideal world, many policy preferences would overlap. But in some cases the candidate will absorb the party’s general view on a topic in the name of unity or pressure the platform committee to make the candidate’s view the official party line. As you might imagine, this can be a delicate—sometimes awkward—process. But it usually is necessary to present voters with a united front ahead of the general election.

Here’s a look at how the major party conventions wound up shaping the candidates higher education platforms and how those changes might resonate on Election Day and beyond.

Tuition-free college for … most

In what is almost certainly the biggest shift coming out the conventions, Hillary Clinton felt the Bern and embraced the vast majority of Sanders’ tuition-free college plan. While their tuition-free and debt-free proposals were always more similar than primary campaign rhetoric might have suggested, it was an important concession to Sanders and his followers.

One of the central planks in Sanders’ campaign was that, in today’s globalized, technology-based economy, a college degree is a baseline requirement for almost every worker. “The world has changed. This is 2016. In many ways, a college degree today is equivalent to what a high school degree was 50, 60 years ago,” Sanders said during a debate with Clinton in February.

Sanders and his voters feel passionately that in order to effectively compete with the rest of the world, moving the system back to where it was in the 1960s and 70s, (when robust state funding made college free or mostly free in California and other states) is an absolute necessity. During the primaries, Team Clinton criticized Sanders’ plan for being too expensive (approximately $700 billion over 10 years), and complained that it would effectively subsidize college tuition costs for the wealthiest American families—who need it least.

“I’m not in favor of making college free for Donald Trump’s kids,” Clinton said during the primaries. “I’m in favor of making college free for your grandson by having no-debt tuition.”

Having sealed up the nomination but needing to bring angry and discontented Sanders’ supporters back into the fold, Clinton effectively ceded the argument to Sanders in the name of party unity—but with important caveats. Clinton’s revised higher-ed plans adopt nearly all of the elements of the Sanders plan but caps the benefits for families making less than $125,000 a year.

That may be enough to sway some wayward Bernie voters, but it also puts the crown jewel of Clinton’s New College Compact on somewhat shakier ground with the public. While a slight majority of Americans are inclined to agree with the concept of tuition-free education, the aggregate numbers mask deep divisions by age and generation. Support is highest among millennials and then drops lower and lower as older groups are surveyed. And in a dynamic familiar to many policy wonks, a substantial number of those who support tuition-free college (upwards of 25 percent) are unwilling to pay higher taxes to pay for it.

Clinton’s debt-free proposal was an attempt to split the difference between these two groups: taking a stand against rising college debt while still emphasizing the need for students and families to have skin in the game by paying in to the system. While this posture always ignored the fact that most families already pay for public higher education through state and federal tax contributions, it did more effectively play to the sensibilities of older Americans and groups outside of the traditional Democratic coalition who view “free college” as another entitlement program that other people have to pay for.

By adopting most of Sanders’ higher ed plans, Clinton may have solidified her support within the Democratic Party while putting her on shakier ground with everyone else.

Debt forgiveness among higher ed plans picking up steam

When the history of the modern student debt crisis is eventually written, the 2015 shut down of the for-profit Corinthian Colleges may very well be viewed as a seminal moment. Not only did it kick off a period of intense focus on the high cost, poor-performing for-profit sector, it marked the first major instance of widespread student debt and loan forgiveness, influencing higher-ed plans.

While the decision was narrowly tailored to students who were defrauded by the for-profit chain, it displayed the lack of legal protections for handing out federal financial aid and served as a stark symbol of the rotten deal that many college students today face. Corinthian Colleges had the unfortunate luck of becoming snared in a federal investigation, but research strongly suggests that they represent something closer to the norm when it comes to for-profit colleges. Given the range of poor outcomes and high debt at many for-profits, it was only a matter of time until the concept of debt-forgiveness worked its way into the political mainstream.

In addition to calling for refinancing interest rates and a return to the days when student loan debt was dischargeable through bankruptcy, the 2016 Democratic Party platform contains the strongest language in support for widespread debt forgiveness in the history of the two major parties:

As millennials and those who have had direct experience with the modern high-cost, high-debt model of higher education become larger portions of the voting electorate, look for debt-forgiveness proposals to become more popular and frequent among politicians seeking higher office.

The invisible Trump platform

Nearly three months after his advisoes promised detailed higher ed plans from their candidate was right around the corner, we have yet to see anything official when it comes to Trump’s higher education platform. In June, fact-checking website Politifact rated a claim by Nevada Democrats that Trump had no plan for containing the costs of higher education as “Mostly True.”

The closest things we have are an in-depth interview by education adviser Sam Clovis that revealed a range of general policy preferences and the 2016 Republican Party platform. Neither is a wholly reliable indicator of Trump’s views, since very few people are considered to be within Trump’s inner circle and his campaign took an uncharacteristically hands-off approach as the platform committee formed the official policy of the Republican Party.

“They said they’re going to have nothing to say about the platform. [Trump will] do what he wants anyway,” said Patricia Longo, a GOP platform committee member who worked on education issues in an interview with The Washington Post.

So we are left with educated guesses and inferring from public comments what Trump thinks about higher education and how the platform may or may not conflict. Making things even more opaque, the higher education section of the 2016 Republican Party platform consists of three paragraphs, one of which is dedicated to ideological bias on college campuses and condemning the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement against the Israeli government.

That being said, the few details that are included show a general overlap between the Republican Party and the policy preferences disclosed by Clovis. Both agree that re-privatizing the financial aid system will lower the costs of college and decry political correctness and “safe zones” protections from undesirable speech on campus.

Both advocate reforming the financial aid process but in different ways, with Clovis indicating that Trump prefers that certain liberal arts majors be denied access to federal aid and the GOP platform pushing to decouple student aid from accreditation in order to allow more lower cost trade schools and private education companies to compete with traditional two and four-year universities.

However, the platform and Clovis’ statements don’t touch on a range of prominent higher education issues: college access, sexual assault, poor outcomes in the for-profit sector and specifics on how Trump’s plans would lower (or even affect) the overall cost of college.

An unsustainable position

This level of detail from Trump’s campaign cannot possibly hold, especially since the Democratic Party believes its comprehensive approach to higher ed plans speaks to issues that many voters care deeply about and contrasts Clinton favorably with Trump.

Even when Trump is asked directly about specifics of his higher ed plans, his responses reveal almost nothing concrete. In June, during a Twitter question and answer session, Trump was asked how he would fix the student loan debt crisis. His response in full is typical of the detail he has provided in his higher education platform thus far:

“Student debt is a tremendous problem in the United States. We’re going to restructure it, we’re going to make it possible for people to borrow money, go through college and get through it. We’re going to make it so it’s very affordable. Right now it’s not fair, it’s one of the only places, frankly, where our country actually makes money and they make a lot of money. And that should not take place. We’re going to make it really good for the student.”

Since higher education and specifically proposals to control and reduce the cost of college are so important to the constituencies Democrats are relying on to win in 2016, look for Clinton to use this contrast to hammer Trump during the presidential debates. In the meantime, in the absence of an official platform from their presidential nominee, look for Republican Party officials and politicians to fall back on the brief 2016 platform when pressed for details by the media and opponents.

Derek Johnson
Derek Johnson is a writer, journalist and editor based out of Virginia. He received a Master’s degree in Public Policy at George Mason University and a bachelor’s degree in Communication from Hofstra University.

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