Donald Trump's college plan needs to go back to school

Among other things, GOP presidential nominee Donald J. Trump is unlikely to deserve the moniker "The Education President."

I searched for his position on college education on the Trump presidential website but couldn't find one. Instead, I found terse statements on his well-known talking points on immigration, dumping Obamacare and building a wall on the Mexican border.

The GOP's official platform devotes all of three paragraphs, out of 62 pages, to college costs. In the past, Trump has favored abolishing "all or part" of the U.S. Department of Education, although that statement is neither on his website nor in the GOP platform statements. To date, Trump hasn't elaborated on which parts of the Education Department he would cut.

While acknowledging that student debt levels for graduates are averaging around $27,000, the GOP college plank states "the federal government should not be in the business of originating student loans ... and private sector participation in student financing should be restored."

In addition to reprivatizing the student loan industry, which many critics contend would raise costs to borrowers, the GOP platform declares that "states should be empowered to allow a wide array of accrediting and credentialing bodies to operate."

No further detail are provided on what the GOP accrediting proposal entails -- colleges are already accredited by independent organizations to various degrees. It's also not clear if this move would make college more affordable or accessible.

However, in an interview published in the May issue of trade journal Inside Higher Ed,Trump's education policy surrogate and campaign co-chairman, Sam Clovis detailed some of Trump's positions on higher education.

A Tea Party activist and former talk-show host, Clovis was a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in Iowa two years ago and had previously worked with Rick Perry's presidential campaign.

Also a tenured professor of economics at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa, currently on unpaid leave, Clovis told Inside Higher Ed that Trump would fight Hillary Clinton's plan to offer a debt-free public college degree for 80 percent of American families and President Obama's proposal to offer free community college courses.

"Community colleges are damn near free now, and almost anyone can afford community college," Clovis told the publication.

Clovis appears to be underinformed on community college expenses: The gap between the cost of community colleges and four-year schools has narrowed in recent years.

The average full cost of attendance is now $15,000 a year for community colleges and $23,000 for four-year institutions, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Two-year students typically borrow much less, though, roughly $4,000.

Regarding the burden of more than $1.3 trillion in student loans that more than 43 million Americans owe, Clovis said Trump would ensure that "colleges have more skin in the game" by sharing the risk for borrowing, adding that colleges should be more vigilant in choosing students likely to graduate on time. He also sees more local banks partnering with student and colleges to ensure college success.

"We think if the college has real skin in the game, it will change its model," Clovis stated. I requested a more detailed education position platform from the Trump campaign, but did not receive a reply.

Not graduating on time has been a prime reason why the student debt burden has ballooned. According to the nonprofit group Complete College America, less than 20 percent of students graduate on time at the nation's top, public four-year colleges and only 5 percent at community colleges. The reasons vary, but the extra time in school -- which adds to student loans -- means an extra $50,000 to $68,000 in expenses and lost wages.

While many have argued that requiring colleges to have more accountability in graduating students is a positive reform, much of the preparation for college success needs to happen in high school and even middle school. Neither candidate has talked in depth about education reforms on that level, nor have they directly addressed how to lower the core costs of a public college education.

On the accountability issue alone, though, Trump is in danger of a failing grade. His private Trump University, the object of a class-action and ongoing investigation by the New York State Attorney General's office, was a "scam to trick people into thinking they would learn Trump's personal real estate secrets" according to New York AG Eric Schneiderman.

Trump has repeatedly defended his long-shuttered real estate education program, even publicly deriding the judge overseeing the litigation. But in court records released to The Washington Post, Trump University officials reportedly used "aggressive tactics" to recruit students and get them to spend more on courses, some of which cost more than $30,000.

And Trump's move to a "free-market" loan system won't help any students, either, although banks probably wouldn't mind having that business back. The student loan origination business was mostly shifted to the Department of Education in 2010, saving taxpayers some $10 billion in bank loan subsidies.

Let's assume that Trump's vague call for enhancing college success through accountability is implemented.

How will colleges be evaluated on this measure? Will they be punished by losing federal funding if they don't make the grade? How will this approach lower the total cost of college? How will low-income students receive financial support if the Department of Education is shut down, along with its Pell Grant program?

In contrast, Clinton recently agreed to campaign on a Bernie Sanders-crafted plan to cover tuition at four-year state schools for families making under $125,000 annually. She has also advocated cutting student loan rates, refinancing existing loans, cracking down on predatory loans and for-profit schools, and deferring loans for social entrepreneurs. Of the two candidates, Clinton's college plan is the most detailed and pro-student.

While the Clinton proposals won't cover room and board or addresses poor graduation rates, they provide tangible relief for middle- and lower-income families. It's far from perfect, but it in effect restores public college subsidies that have been dramatically eroded in recent years.

The two candidates' basic philosophies are in basic conflict. The Democratic/Clinton camp sees higher education as more of a public good, like interstate highways and electrical infrastructure.

The Republican/Trump, in contrast, sees a college degree as more of a privilege conferred through stricter accountability that will involve private banks in lending, which is unlikely to lower the total cost of a degree.

Neither platform addresses how to directly improve college preparation or the soaring underlying cost of higher education. Although the Clinton plan would certainly make college more affordable for more middle- and lower-class families, Trump's proposals will economically harm students. His approach is poorly conceived and comes up short in addressing the core problems of higher education.

  • John Wasik

    John Wasik is the author of The Debt-Free Degree and 15 other books. He writes and speaks regularly on personal finance issues throughout North America.