With No Higher Ed Questions at First Presidential Debate, Clinton Needs to Get Creative with College Plans

Election 2016
Posted By Derek Johnson on October 4, 2016 at 10:31 am
With No Higher Ed Questions at First Presidential Debate, Clinton Needs to Get Creative with College Plans
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at the first presidential debate at Hofstra University, Sept. 26, 2016, in Hempstead, N.Y. Image: Evan Vucci, AP Photo

Higher education was not a top item on the agenda for last 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 education 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,” said Clinton.

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

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 education 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 at all, preferring to focus on issues like trade, taxes and 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, Trump, like Clinton, was not asked any questions about higher education. However, it’s unclear what he 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 advisor Sam Clovis and a few scattered, off-the-cuff comments during interviews over the past year.

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. They 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 midterm victories at the polls. Issues like 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 1980’s or never went college. Many of these voters tend to be wary of what they perceive as pervasive liberal bias on college campuses and are more skeptical of policies like 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 – like tonight’s, with vice presidential nominees Governor Mike Pence (R) and Senator Tim Kaine (D) – 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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