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Trump vs. Clinton on higher ed: A clear winner emerges

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When it comes to higher education, which presidential candidate best addresses the many pitfalls of an overpriced college degree and its ensuing debts?

While Donald Trump has many ideas on this subject, his “slash and burn” approach of eliminating the Department of Education (DE) isn’t a workable solution. Hillary Clinton’s ideas, though flawed, will help a greater number of families, in my analysis.

First, let’s look at Trump’s plan. He wants to privatize college loans and nix the DE altogether. An analysis by the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a progressive group, estimates that would result in nearly a half-million teachers being laid off and 8 million low-income students losing college grants.

That plan would also hurt rural school districts, native Americans and disabled students, according to the center.

Where Donald Trump stands on education

Of the six education-oriented talking points on Trump’s website, four detail funding and access to “school choice,” meaning $20 billion in federal education dollars would follow students to any school, including private or charter schools. That could devastate public school funding and shift even more of the burden of paying for schools onto local property taxes.

The two points that directly address higher education in the Trump plan call for cutting the “cost of college and student debt in exchange for the federal tax breaks and tax dollars.”

Trump would also raise caps on loan repayment plans, forgive more debt and target “administrative bloat” at colleges to reduce costs.

While I agree with the spirit of that statement, neither Trump nor his running mate Governor Mike Pence have fleshed out how that proposal would work or how it would be paid for through his budget.

Trump’s declaration early this year that “there’s so much waste” in the DE also wasn’t accompanied by details, so it’s unknown whether another federal agency would dole out funds for the low-income Pell Grants and other programs or the department’s funding would be cut in its entirety.

Hillary Clinton’s higher education plan, in contrast, appears to be more focused on helping middle-class families, although it’s not entirely clear how she would push her aggressive agenda through a divided Congress.

Where Hillary Clinton stands on education

The main plank of Clinton’s education platform is free college tuition for families earning $125,000 or less and free community college. The program, though, applies only to public university tuition -- not room and board -- and would be implemented by 2021 if Congress passes it.

Perhaps a more doable policy in a divided Congress would be her position on refinancing student loans, which would affect 25 million students and graduates. Loan repayments would be capped at 10 percent of annual income and be forgiven after 20 years. And Clinton would cut interest rates on loans.

I’ve always felt that if students are to be charged any interest at all -- no finance charge is best -- they should at least pay something close to the federal funds rate, which is currently well under 1 percent.

Clinton’s plan is squarely focused on reducing college loan debt, yet it’s not entirely clear how it would be financed, although she has earmarked “limiting certain tax expenditures for high-income taxpayers.”

Drilling deeper into her higher education proposals reveal her “New College Compact,” which goes into more policy objectives on cutting the high cost of college. She would compel colleges to be more accountable and streamline their expenses, make students work at least 10 hours a work and “reward innovators.” 

Even though Clinton’s plan appears family- and middle-class friendly, it seems headed for a legislative and political buzzsaw. Why would affluent families give up valuable tax breaks to eliminate college loans for others? How would she bring down the overall cost of education in a time that has seen public college tuition rising some 40 percent over the last decade?

While candidates can’t be expected to have their policies worked out thoroughly in the face of Congress’ uncertain makeup, it’s important to understand their focus.

Clinton wants direct aid to middle-class families and will shift money from wealthier families to pay for it. Trump wants to tear down the edifice of federal funding for education, although he offers no proposal to replace the DE’s funding mechanism for a variety of programs.

Feds make critical college financial aid tool available early

Then you have to ask yourself if a radical solution is the best route. Although the DE can be severely criticized for its outsourcing and poor supervision of student loan repayments and awful communication in this area, eliminating the department, as Trump proposes, isn’t a viable solution.

How does the department spend its resources? How can it better automate and improve student loan repayments? How can parents obtain more access and information to aid? These are the most critical questions facing families that must deal with the DE’s labyrinth of loan and aid options, which only Clinton addresses.

At the very least, both candidates should be demanding an overhaul of how the DE is run. A comprehensive, independent audit is long overdue.

Still, which candidate comes out on top in higher education policy comes down to your pocketbook. If you -- or family members -- are hounded by college debt or the sheer cost of a degree, then Clinton’s plan offers the most debt-averse proposals.

If you want to torch the federal government’s role in higher education -- including funding for teachers and low-income students -- then Trump’s plan will work for you. But in the final comparison, the GOP’s gasoline-on-fire approach isn’t a better way to address college costs. 

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