Democratic Contenders' Record on Higher Ed

The 2016 Democratic primary was defined in part by free college. But contenders seeking the party's nomination in 2020 have focused on a wide range of issues in higher ed, including debt relief, for-profits and sexual misconduct.

February 14, 2019
 
Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand and Bernie Sanders

At least nine Democrats have declared themselves candidates for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination or have made noises suggesting they’re making plans to run. And while the primary campaign will likely include a reprise of the 2016 debate over free college, several prominent candidates have unique track records in higher ed that they’ll bring to the campaign, potentially setting up a broader debate about priorities for postsecondary education.

The experience of figures like Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren taking on postsecondary education issues could suggest the approach they would take as president. Each would present distinct opportunities to offer a contrast with Trump administration policies on for-profit colleges, student debt and campus sexual misconduct. And with multiple candidates attaching their names to ambitious college-affordability legislation, those track records would offer another chance to separate the candidates from primary competitors.

Other Democrats who have announced campaigns for the nomination, like New Jersey senator Cory Booker or former San Antonio mayor Julián Castro, are better known for positions on K-12 education issues. They'll likely be pushed to weigh in on higher ed issues, though. Here are the candidates whose policy agendas thus far have included higher education in a prominent role.

Kamala Harris: Critic of For-Profit Colleges

Under the Obama administration, cracking down on abuses in the for-profit college sector became perhaps the biggest focus of higher education policy makers. And many of the enforcement actions taken by the administration were enabled by the work of the California attorney general’s office under the leadership of now senator Kamala Harris.

Harris, who served as California AG from 2011 to 2017, sued for-profit giant Corinthian Colleges in 2013 alleging a predatory model that deployed falsified job-placement rates and other misrepresentations to students. While that lawsuit was underway, she asked a federal court to prevent Corinthian from enrolling new students -- a decision the chain said would be a death knell for its campuses.

The Education Department eventually fined Corinthian, which shut down in 2015, $30 million for those misrepresentations -- thanks in part to the investigative work of the California attorney general’s office. As attorney general and as a member of Congress, Harris has pushed for debt cancellation for former Corinthian students. As a senator, she’s also sought to block expanded access to military bases for for-profit colleges.

Bob Shireman, director of higher education excellence and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, said the Corinthian lawsuit “helped to alert law enforcement and regulators and policy makers to what these rapid increases in enrollment look like underneath those numbers. Underneath the increase in stock prices, there was a lot of abuse of consumers and misleading of potential students.”

Elizabeth Warren: Advocate for Defrauded Students

Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren has made student debt a signature issue since entering Congress in 2013. As a member of the Senate education committee, she’s been one of the toughest critics of for-profit colleges, student loan servicers and banks that offer financial products to college students. And after Betsy DeVos was confirmed as education secretary in February 2017, Warren established herself as the billionaire GOP activist’s biggest foil on the Hill.

She pushed, along with activists and state AGs, for the Education Department to set up a clear process for defrauded students to seek forgiveness on their student loans. And Warren took both the Obama administration and DeVos to task for slow progress issuing loan forgiveness to former Corinthian Colleges students.

Warren has also used her profile to launch attacks on companies she says have failed students. She blasted student loan servicer Navient last year over an Education Department audit that found the company steered tens of thousands of borrowers into higher-cost repayment plans. And last month she pressured college presidents to drop agreements with Wells Fargo in response to a Consumer Financial Protection Bureau report that showed the company charged higher-than-average fees to users of campus-sponsored debit cards.

As thousands of borrowers who expected loan cancellation saw their applications rejected for Public Service Loan Forgiveness last year, Warren secured $350 million in funding to pay for an eligibility fix for those borrowers. She’s also helped build bipartisan momentum in the Senate behind the College Transparency Act, legislation that would overturn the federal ban on student unit records and would provide more complete data on the outcomes of colleges and individual programs.

“She’s had a very comprehensive worldview when it comes to higher education,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. “That’s not surprising because she comes out of higher ed. It’s natural that she would know the most about it and be aware of its many complicated features.”

Warren's version of a "free-college" proposal outlined in 2015 differed from the model adopted by Senator Bernie Sanders, the biggest proponent of free college in some key respects. It touted more funding from the federal government to states that provide a pathway to a college degree without debt. But it wouldn't make college tuition-free for all students. It also emphasizes accountability from colleges, which would face the loss of funds if large numbers of students didn't repay their loans.

Kirsten Gillibrand: A Focus on Campus Sexual Assault

While other candidates have focused on the costs of college and the role of companies involved in driving student debt, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, has spent much of her time in the Senate pushing colleges to do more to respond to sexual assault on their campuses.

After Gillibrand sparred repeatedly with fellow Democrat Claire McCaskill on a response to sexual assault in the military, the two senators worked together to press colleges and the Obama administration to change the standards for handling complaints of sexual assault. Gillibrand and McCaskill also crafted legislation that would increase the penalties for colleges found to have violated federal civil rights law by improperly handling alleged sexual misconduct.

The bill, dubbed the Campus Safety and Accountability Act, won bipartisan support in the Senate, counting among its supporters Florida Republican Marco Rubio and Iowa Republican Chuck Grassley. Although the legislation died in committee without reaching the floor in either the House or Senate, it helped put a spotlight on failures in addressing sexual assault.

The senators said they hoped to attach the bill to a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. Serious progress on an HEA bill has yet to take place, though, and the election of President Trump in 2016 meant a reset of federal policy on campus sexual assault. Under Betsy DeVos, the Education Department has restricted the scope of civil rights investigations and rescinded guidance from the Obama administration on how colleges should handle misconduct cases. DeVos instead said she would issue new federal regulations. A draft rule released in November received major criticism from survivor groups for curtailing protections for students and limiting the number of cases colleges would be obligated to pursue.

Gillibrand said DeVos's decision to rescind the Obama-era guidance in 2017 “betrays our students, plain and simple.” And in a series of tweets last month, she said the draft Title IX regulation released by the department would weaken protections for survivors.

Gillibrand also directed attention to the work of advocates on the issue as well as survivors. Her guest at the 2015 State of the Union address was Emma Sulkowicz, a Columbia University student who made headlines for a performance-art project in which she carried a 50-pound mattress to protest the university's decision not to remove her alleged attacker. A Columbia disciplinary panel cleared the student she accused of rape of wrongdoing, and the university later settled a lawsuit with the student in which he alleged harassment on the part of Sulkowicz.

Bernie Sanders: Free College

Bernie Sanders, a Vermont Independent, has yet to officially announce a presidential campaign. But many still expect him to jump into the race. And his 2016 run for the Democratic nomination helped cement free college as a mainstream proposal to address access to postsecondary education and the growth of student debt.

Sanders went from backing two years of free tuition at any public college to campaigning on the elimination of all tuition and fees at public institutions.

Hillary Clinton, who eventually won the Democratic nomination, offered a free-college plan in 2016 that would make all two- and four-year institutions tuition-free to students with family incomes up to $125,000. The next year, Sanders introduced new free-college legislation in the Senate that adopted that framework. It got the support of 2020 contenders including Warren, Harris and Gillibrand.

And some Democrats have shown an appetite for going even further than Sanders to address college affordability. Senator Brian Schatz, a Hawaii Democrat, last year introduced “debt-free” college legislation that would cover the costs of attendance including transportation and housing. Warren, Harris, Gillibrand and Booker signed on to that bill.

The 2018 midterms also saw a number of progressive gubernatorial and congressional candidates campaign on free college, showing the idea’s political appeal as a solution for the growing costs of a degree.

“The debate has clearly shifted since President Obama proposed free community college back in 2014,” said Mark Huelsman, associate director of policy and research at Demos.

But while some of the biggest names to enter the primary campaign have signed on to free or debt-free college proposals, other Democratic candidates have offered support for more moderate solutions. Castro, the former mayor of San Antonio, endorsed two years of free college at any public institution. And Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat, has endorsed free community college as well as student loan refinancing.

The free-community-college model was also backed by House Democrats last year in a proposal to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. But Ben Miller, director of higher education at the Center for American Progress, said voters may expect candidates to go bigger.

"It's very clear that there's a strong interest in bold ideas for making college more affordable," he said. "There's a broad understanding that elements of the economy relating to the American dream aren't working and that we need solutions for that."

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