With No Higher Ed Debate Questions, Hillary Clinton Gets Creative to Tout Plans

Election 2016
Posted By Derek Johnson on September 27, 2016 at 2:13 pm
With No Higher Ed Debate Questions, Hillary Clinton Gets Creative to Tout Plans

Higher education was not a top item on the agenda for Monday night’s debate between presidential candidates Hillary Clinton (D) and Donald Trump (R) at Hofstra University. In fact, moderator Lester Holt didn’t ask the candidates a single question about their plans for making the lives of college students and graduates better. So one candidate, Clinton, had to get creative in order to work mentions of her higher ed platform into answers about more general economic issues. When Holt asked the candidates why they were best choice to create good paying jobs and lifting economic anxiety, Clinton cited her college debt plan.

“I want us to do more to support people who are struggling to balance family and work. I’ve heard from so many of you about the difficult choices you face and the stresses that you’re under. So let’s have paid family leave, earned sick days. Let’s be sure we have affordable child care and debt-free college,” Clinton said.

Later, while criticizing Trump’s tax proposals, Clinton again found a way to work in several big-ticket items from her higher ed plan.

“I don’t think top-down [policies work] in America. I think building the middle class, investing in the middle class, making college debt-free so more young people can get their education, helping people refinance their debt from college at a lower rate, those are the kinds of things that will really boost the economy,” said Clinton. “Broad-based, inclusive growth is what we need in America, not more advantages for people at the very top.”

A familiar pattern on higher ed

For voters looking to learn more about each candidate’s views on higher education issues or at least see a robust back and forth, Monday’s debate offered slim pickings. In fact, the first half of the night could serve as a metaphor for how each candidate and party has approached higher ed this election cycle, with Clinton going out of her way to connect student debt and the high cost of college to general economic anxieties and Trump saying virtually nothing about the topic, preferring to focus on issues such as trade and taxes and engaging in lengthy sparring sessions with his opponent over political scandals.

“Typical politician. All talk, no action. Sounds good, doesn’t work,” said Trump. “Our country is suffering because people like Secretary Clinton have made such bad decisions in terms of our jobs and in terms of what’s going on.”

To be fair, neither candidate was asked any questions about higher education. However, it’s unclear what Trump might have said if he had been. Just 42 days out from Election Day and nearly four months after promising a detailed plan was forthcoming, Trump has yet to offer a higher education platform beyond a widely-cited interview in May with education adviser Sam Clovis and a few scattered, off-the-cuff comments during interviews over the past year.

One reason for the candidate contrast

One dynamic that might explain the contrast is the different voting demographics each candidate is pursuing. Turnout among young voters is a critical component of Clinton’s strategy for victory in November.

But young voters have been historically slow to warm to Clinton, with both President Barack Obama and Senator Bernie Sanders racking up huge margins with voters under the age of 25 while running against Clinton in 2008 and 2016. Younger voters trust Clinton the least among all age groups.


The worry from Clinton’s camp is not that these voters will pull the lever for her opponent (Trump is even more disliked by young voters) but that they will decide to stay home as they did in 2010 and 2014, when Republicans won huge victories at the polls. Issues such as college debt are front and center in the minds of most recent college graduates, and so it should not come as a surprise that Clinton would find a way to mention these issues even if the questions are unrelated.

On the other hand, Trump’s coalition is comprised of mostly older voters, many of whom either attended college before the student debt bubble began expanding in the 1980s or never went college. These voters are traditionally wary of what they perceive as pervasive liberal bias on college campuses and are more skeptical of policies such as loan forgiveness and “free” college than the average American.

Still, policy analysts have wondered just how long Trump can go without rolling out a formal higher education plan. Many have viewed the debates as one of the last forums for Trump to offer more insight into how he would tackle a laundry list of higher education issues, from college debt and cost of attendance to sexual assault and political correctness on campus.

It appears voters will have to hold out hope that future debates will delve deeper into these issues to get any answers.


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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