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As this oddest of all U.S. national presidential elections careens into its last month,  we can take a moment to reflect on how higher education policy has figured in. Surely higher education has not been a leading issue, instead far overshadowed by national security, immigration, public spending and taxes, scandals, and much more. Yet higher education policy has sometimes occupied a niche within each of these big policy concerns, and has sometimes found the headlines on its own. Let us consider the role of higher education policy in these elections, including how the role fits or breaks from U.S. tradition, and what it might portend for future elections. Where there are breaks from U.S. historical tradition, do they make U.S. electoral politics concerning higher education somewhat more like politics in other democracies?

In countries where student movements track national political parties, university and national politics often comingle visibly, as where issues of eliminating public university tuition or prohibiting for-profit higher education have figured in recent Chilean national elections. In contrast, U.S. national politics was long famously ‘non-national’: decentralized to state and local and non-government hands. Education (including higher education) is among the many policy matters not constitutionally given any national government role. Through most of U.S. history major policy debates about higher education have usually not been national. Even where they were national they generally did not lay themselves out along a sharp partisan divide. “Apolitical” typically meant non-partisan and not central subject matter for electoral campaigning. With the steady and significant growth of the U.S. national government role in higher education since the mid-20th century, however, such traditions have naturally been challenged.

Meanwhile, as every watcher of cable news is reminded ad nauseum, U.S. politics has become sharply polarized. The refrain is off-base when it suggests that most of public opinion has veered toward the political extremes. But it is on target when it emphasizes that one side opposes the other on issue after issue and that the clash is at the core of partisan politics. Informed citizens could guess fairly well which party favors what on a host of higher education issues from affirmative action to the bounds of free speech on campus to the volume of federal spending or the volume of federal regulation.

And yet in the national electoral cycle of 2016, higher education policy hit its zenith on the issue agenda in the primaries, not the general election. More specifically, in the Democratic primaries. Insurgent Senator Bernie Sanders made free tuition at public universities a cornerstone issue, an integral part of his “stump” speech. Though primary-opponent Hillary Clinton questioned the cost feasibility, this was one of several issues where Sanders eventually pulled Clinton significantly leftward and in the general campaign she has advocated “debt-free” public higher education via a tuition-free ride for all those not from high-income families. She has indeed raised the issue saliency as she has been plagued by the lack of enthusiasm for her candidacy among “millennial” voters. Should she be elected and push her higher education policies, one could expect a highly visible, national, partisan debate engaging, among other matters, the likely impact of such policy on the fate of private higher education.

In substance and symbol, one way in which Clinton has stopped short of Sanders’ exuberant advocacy of free tuition is that Sanders repeatedly and centrally cited foreign precedent. The US stands conspicuously alone among “major” countries, ran his refrain, in not providing free tuition. A similar refrain had been common when Hillary Clinton had pushed her ill-fated national healthcare plan at the start of her husband’s presidency and, more recently, when Barack Obama pushed his own “Obamacare” early in his own presidency. Foreign precedent tends not to play well for the Republican half of the electorate. Both Clinton and Trump have proposals for income-contingent loan repayment, which echoes Australian policy. Another way in which Clinton has stopped short of the Sanders’ approach is simply not making rather open access to public higher education nearly as central an issue as Sanders’ would have in the general election. Meanwhile, one does not sense that higher education policy is playing a major role in most national Senate races, though this question merits a state-by-state look.

For his part Donald Trump has not done much to make higher education a central part of his campaign. Among possible GOP issues, he has not said much about the markedly increasing role of the federal government in funding and regulating higher education. Even in connection with illegal immigration he has not spoken saliently against access to higher education, let alone tuition-free access, for non-citizens. He has instead broadly attacked the establishment’s feebleness in tying higher education to the workplace, giving his own take on the haunting campaign image of college graduates living in their parents’ basements.

One key way in which higher education has played a major role in the general U.S. campaign is not as a debated policy issue. Instead, it is as a crucial divide in the electorate. Trump’s appeal (compared to not only Clinton’s but earlier to his GOP competitors) has been strong among the non-college educated, weak among the college educated. “I love the poorly educated,” Trump proclaimed during the primaries in response to this clear electoral analysis and in keeping with his own “populist” vs “elitist” approach.  Another way in which higher education has inserted itself into an attention grabbing role in the election is, fittingly enough for this particular election, as corruption. On one side there is the legal case against Trump University for alleged yawning gaps between promises made and performance delivered. On the other side, related to charges of “pay to play,” is the huge salary Bill Clinton was paid to be “Chancellor” of the international higher education for-profit Laureate chain, which dutifully contributed to the Clinton Foundation. 

Higher education policy has not been front and center (though it has been left and right if you will), in the 2016 presidential elections. But neither has it been nearly absent. Supposing that the long-term trend toward increased federal involvement in higher education policy continues, and that the partisan divide remains powerful, it would not be surprising to see a greater and greater presence of higher education policy in presidential campaigns, a blow, for better or worse, to U.S. tradition.



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