Saddled with a big deficit in the polls among college graduates, Donald Trump took on student loans in a speech that observers say was his most wide-ranging on a major higher ed issue. Trump endorsed income-driven repayment, one of the Obama administration's key higher ed initiatives. He also ripped schools with big endowments and promised to protect free speech on campus, an issue that was once left-of-center but has become more mercurial in the age of trigger warnings and social media.
Channeling Bernie Sanders, Trump gave what was dubbed his "Millennial Speech" at a private gathering in Columbus, Ohio on Thursday, where he stated that "Students should not be asked to pay more on loans than they can afford." Trump proposed that student loans be based on graduates' income with payment capped at 12.5%. He also said that if borrowers make scheduled payments for 15 years, they should be done with their debt. Income-based repayment, another name from Trump's proposal, is not a new idea and is baked into the Department of Education's repayment options. A facsimile has been endorsed by Hillary Clinton.
American Enterprise Institute fellow Jason Delisle noted in a series of Twitter messages that Trump's proposal would get borrowers out of debt in about 15 years while President Obama's plan would take 20. Delisle seemed to glean some contradictions from Trump's remarks, writing that "Trump (is) running to the left of Obama" on student loans while adding that Trump was "talking some very regressive and bad ideas on student loans."
Trump also said he will force schools to reduce tuition. "If the federal government is going to subsidize student loans, it has a right to expect that colleges work hard to control costs and invest their resources in their students," he said. "If colleges refuse to take this responsibility seriously, they will be held accountable."
The result would include ending the tax-exempt status of colleges and universities with large endowments that don't devote those funds to tuition cuts. Colleges, the real estate magnate said, need "to spend endowments on their students, not themselves," an issue closely aligned with the progressive wing of the Democrat party.
Trump also said colleges could cut costs by eliminating the "tremendous bloat" in spending on administrators--another stance embraced by progressives.
The jury was out, especially among progressives, as to how progressive the total higher ed package might be or what Trump would actually do. Higher ed experts noted that he provided more details than he typically does during some of his pronouncements. Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said, "Despite the characteristic bluster...about capping costs and solving problems through negotiations, I was actually surprised by how lucid he was in describing his loan plan: (paying) 12.5% of income for 15 years. It's not that simple but not too bad for any presidential candidate and amazingly proximate to reality for Trump."
On Friday morning, the Clinton campaign gave Trump no credit for devising a policy, nor did it criticize him for cribbing from the positions of other candidates. "More than a year after Secretary Clinton released her plan to take on college costs and student debt, we are still waiting for Donald Trump to lay out a detailed plan for addressing these issues," a Clinton spokesperson said in a statement. "The promises he has made so far are as empty as the promises he made to students at Trump University."