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A lot of talk about higher education on the 2016 campaign trail, but no real solutions

Democratic Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 19, 2015, to discuss college tuition legislation. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Democratic Presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. speaks at a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, May 19, 2015, to discuss college tuition legislation. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin) 

Higher education will have more attention this election cycle, but that could be for good or ill.

As Politico reported, Democratic candidates are touting more government spending to make higher education more accessible. Republican candidates want more accountability and more competition among colleges and universities.

Democratic proposals for free community college and free four-year public colleges and universities face a similar hurdle: how to pay for all those free degrees. Some plans would push $100 billion over a decade. Free college isn’t actually free. It simply shifts the burden of payment from students to taxpayers.

The Republican side is more scattershot; fewer grand proposals, more reforms and critiques.

Marco Rubio wants to go after accreditation agencies. Scott Walker wants universities to engage in “risk sharing” where they’re penalized if students default on their loans. Ohio Gov. John Kasich has threatened university funding if they don’t cut costs and lower tuition.

What the parties diverge on is why college is so expensive.

Democrats think large cuts in state funding to universities drive costs — and student loans — higher. Student loan debt stands at around $1.2 trillion. Republicans cite a hodgepodge of problems such as larger university bureaucracies, teacher pay, athletics spending, and administrative pay.

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks at 1871, an entrepreneurial hub for digital startups Tuesday, July 7, 2015, in Chicago.   Rubio outlined a plan to lower corporate tax rates, loosen Internet regulation and broaden college accreditation, in his first major domestic policy speech as a presidential candidate. (AP Photo/Christian K. Lee)

Republican presidential candidate Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., speaks at 1871, an entrepreneurial hub for digital startups Tuesday, July 7, 2015, in Chicago. Rubio outlined a plan to lower corporate tax rates, loosen Internet regulation and broaden college accreditation, in his first major domestic policy speech as a presidential candidate. (AP Photo/Christian K. Lee) 

One issue is the diversity of higher education in America. It’s difficult to craft policy that has the intended effect on every sort of higher educational institution. Frequently, what is good for a small, elite liberal-arts college will be detrimental to a community college or a regional public university.

Another issue is the democratic nature of education in America. A series in Slate that compared France to the United States emphasized this: the American model is based on access whereas the French model is based on exclusivity. That is, the French model tracks students from a young age and makes it difficult to change. In the American system, so long as a student has the money or can get a loan, anyone can obtain a degree.

When choice and access reign supreme, and a college degree is seen as a requirement for success, it’s not surprising that students see higher tuition and fees every year.

Higher education is an investment, but it’s also a consumption.

Students want certain amenities for a college experience. That also drives costs. To attract students, universities build student centers, recreational centers, comfortable dormitories and high-quality dining halls, and other attractions to ensure students enjoy their time while studying.

The debate surrounding higher education rarely acknowledges those nuances.

Politicians want to write a new policy, or say that the government will cover the costs.

Speaking with Politico, Barmak Nassirian, the director of federal policy analysis at American Association of State Colleges and Universities, said, “My worry is that we’ll end up with a series of politically appealing messages that represent really lousy policy.”

Given how little patience the American public has for complicated, intricate policy concerns, Nassirian’s concerns are warranted.


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