Republican Roundup

Jeb Bush and other candidates for the Republican presidential nomination begin to follow Senator Marco Rubio down the wonkier corridors of higher education policy.

September 10, 2015

The leading Democratic presidential hopefuls have unveiled complex -- and expensive -- proposals for making college more affordable. Their Republican counterparts, however, have largely avoided the wonkier side of higher education policy in their speechifying, with the exception of Senator Marco Rubio.

That appears to be changing. Several other candidates for the Republican nomination have begun weighing in on college issues that were once relegated to the likes of Inside Higher Ed, The Chronicle of Higher Education or an occasional New York Times think piece.

Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor with a familiar last name, has pledged to release a broad college affordability plan in October. Other Republican hopefuls are likely to follow suit. But here are a few ideas Bush and others have discussed in the meantime.

Free Community College

Bush opposes the Obama administration’s proposal to make two years of community college free nationwide. He has said that promising to give away “free stuff” is poll driven and a “great sound bite.” However, Bush recently said he supports Tennessee’s state-run version of free community college, which Obama also has praised.

“There are great programs around the country -- one of the ones I most admire is a project called Tennessee Promise, where every student that participates gets their community college education, at least for the first two years, debt free, free of tuition,” Bush said in late August, according to The Hill.

A campaign spokeswoman subsequently told The Hill that Bush “supports a state’s right to innovate and find solutions to our education challenges.”

Skin in the Game

In the same public appearance, the former Florida governor also said he supports some form of risk sharing in higher education. Policy makers on both sides of the aisle support versions of that idea, including Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who leads the Senate’s education committee, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, the influential Democrat from Massachusetts.

Other Republican hopefuls have said they support this form of accountability for higher education, including Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Ben Carson, the retired neurosurgeon who has had a recent bump in polls.

Bush didn’t say much say much about his vision for “skin in the game,” but linked the concept to four-year graduation rates.

“If kids can’t graduate with a four-year degree in four years, there ought to be some payback to their families or to them,” Bush said, according to The Hill, “or there’s got to be some support for the loans they’ve taken out.”

Bush has repeatedly cited a statistic that 60 percent of college graduates take more than four years to complete a four-year degree, as the Young Invincibles has noted. (So-called on-time graduation rates stood at 40 percent in 1958, so apparently not much has changed. Experts prefer to use six-year rates, which are 55 percent over all, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.)

Two reasons for relatively low graduation rates, Bush said, according to Bloomberg, are that it can be hard for students to get all the courses they need, and because colleges do not offer enough “up-front counseling” for students to help ensure that they complete their course work.

Debt Forgiveness

John Kasich, Ohio’s governor and a candidate for the Republican nomination, mentioned the issue of debt relief during a recent campaign appearance in New Hampshire. That topic has become a high-profile one among some Democrats, who have sought to have federal loans forgiven for students who attended the collapsed Corinthian Colleges, a for-profit chain.

Kasich briefly mentioned the concept this month, according to The Columbus Dispatch. But debt forgiveness would come with strings, he said, noting that the plan he is considering would let students “do some hard work” to get relief from college debt.

Eliminating the Education Department

A time-honored tradition of the Republican primary is for candidates to call for the U.S. Department of Education to be abolished. This campaign is no exception.

Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, said he wants to nix the Education Department as part of his plan to “tackle the establishment and reform our colleges and universities so they make sense for the jobs of tomorrow.”

Likewise, Donald Trump, the real estate magnate and reality television star who so far leads in the Republican primary polls, also has taken on the department. Yet he didn’t go as far as some of his rivals, saying, “You could cut that way, way, way down.”

Rubio, however, would swing the ax with more vigor. This month he said the country doesn’t need the federal agency, according to the Associated Press, because its recommendations to state and local governments often become mandates that are tied to funding.

"What starts out as a suggestion ends up being, 'If you want money from us, you must do it this way,' and you will end up with a version of a national school board," Rubio said. "We don't need a national school board."

He said the department oversees programs that have merit, but that those functions could be transferred to other agencies.

One federal role that might require some tweaking under the Florida senator’s plan is that of the U.S. secretary of education in approving and overseeing the accreditation agencies that are gatekeepers of federal financial aid programs.

Rubio has promised to bust up the “cartel” of higher education accreditation by creating an alternative accreditation pathway for low-cost, innovative education providers. That idea is grounded in legislation Rubio has introduced previously in the Senate. So far, however, he has yet to clarify which agency might oversee a new accreditor under an Education Department-free executive branch.


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