Primary Education

(Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series discussing the presidential candidates’ views and likely policies toward higher education. This part focuses on the Republican candidates’ positions. On December 12, Jay Schalin presented the higher education track record and statements of Barack Obama.)

For the most part, the Republican primary has focused on economic issues such as employment, taxation, and government spending. Higher education hasn’t been a prime topic.

But for future students, taxpayers, and university officials, the presidential hopefuls’ higher education policies could loom large. Decisions at the top could further inflate the higher education bubble or, alternatively, spur educational innovations. A look at the Republican field (in alphabetical order) reveals a variety of policy choices gleaned from their websites, statements, and debates.

Michele Bachmann

As a member of the Minnesota state legislature and now as a congresswoman, Bachmann has compiled a record of skepticism toward federal involvement in education at all levels.

  • In Congress Bachman has fought to reduce the federal role in education and vows to abolish the Department of Education if she is elected president. “Academic standards and outcomes were higher” before the department’s creation, she says.
  • She vocally criticized President Barack Obama’s plan to ease student loan debt as an “abuse of power” that will give graduates an incentive to dodge debt.
  • Bachmann’s website states that she “supports enforcement of America’s immigration laws and opposes efforts like the DREAM Act (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) to provide in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants.”
  • At a speech at the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco, Bachmann said, “College tuitions are out of control while paradoxically the availability of information has never been greater. The nation’s young entrepreneurs are graduating with enormous debts that often steer them away from pursuing starting a new business, and instead toward stable jobs that increase their ability to pay down their loans.” To alleviate the problem, Bachmann proposed employment law reforms.

Newt Gingrich

As a former university professor, Newt Gingrich offers some specific suggestions as well as broad policy changes.

  • Gingrich would, as part of his social media outreach, teach a free online course from the White House. “I think I will probably teach a course when I’m president,” Gingrich told students and supporters after a campaign speech on entitlement reform at Saint Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics.
  • Part of Gingrich’s plan would be to encourage states to “think outside outdated boundaries of education.” In a handout he prepared for a College Board forum, Gingrich praised two examples of innovative state programs that could be emulated: Governor Daniels’ program in Indiana that gives students who graduate early the cost of the years they skip as an automatic scholarship and College of the Ozarks’ work-study college program that enables students to graduate debt-free.
  • Gingrich believes that “higher education should become dramatically more productive and less expensive.”
  • Gingrich would limit the Department of Education’s role to the collection of research and data and helping find innovative approaches to then be adopted voluntarily at the local level.
  • In 2006 Gingrich suggested a policy of no-interest student loans for math and science graduates (as long as they remain in their respective fields).

Jon Huntsman

Although Huntsman lists education as one of his top priorities as governor of Utah, his record on higher education is short.

  • As governor of Utah, Huntsman was supportive of technology education, saying, “The Utah College of Applied Technology was created to be responsive to industry and meet the demands of a growing technical workforce. While there are still issues to be ironed out, but we all agree on the goal: a UCAT system that is more responsive to real-time business needs and is more accessible to Utah’s students.”
  • At a forum in New Hampshire, Huntsman told the audience that if elected president, he would make it a priority to shore up vocational programs and job training programs.
  • As governor, Huntsman signed legislation to circumvent portions of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, indicating support for state—rather than federal—control of education.

Ron Paul

Always a skeptic on government power, Ron Paul’s platform calls for significantly decreasing the federal government’s role in higher education.

  • Part of Paul’s five-year balanced budged plan calls for eliminating the Department of Education and phasing out all of its functions other than Pell grants. Although student aid is not specifically mentioned in his plan, Paul would like to see “eventually transitioning student aid away from the inefficient and ineffective federal government and back to local governments and private market-based solutions.”
  • At a recent debate, Paul asserted, “There’s no authority in the Constitution for the federal government to be dealing with education.”
  • During the CNBC debate, Paul agreed with reformers who warn that higher education is the next bubble, explaining that government has injected lots of money into universities and they have responded by raising prices far faster than inflation and by padding their payrolls with useless (or perhaps harmful) administrators.

Rick Perry

Known as an education innovator, Rick Perry made a splash with his suggestion that a degree should only cost $10,000. As governor of Texas, he has also focused on improving academic standards.

  • Perry’s website states, “Gov. Perry believes substantial savings could be found if we would dramatically reduce the size and influence of the U.S. Department of Education, narrowing its focus to instead serve as a clearing house for best practices and innovative methods, instead of an arbiter of one-size-fits-all mandates.”
  • While Perry was governor, Texas became the first state to make stringent college-ready curriculum the standard coursework required for graduation; students are required to graduate with four courses in math, science, English, and social studies.
  • As governor of Texas, Perry also signed legislation to require schools to offer high school students 12 hours of dual credit in college courses.
  • Perry has defended Texas’ in-state tuition laws, saying that they are not the equivalent of the DREAM act. His website states, “In Texas, any child who has lived in the state for three years, graduated from a state high school and is pursuing citizenship is allowed to pay in-state tuition rates for college.”

Mitt Romney

As governor of Massachusetts, Romney established a limited record on higher education. And although his campaign hasn’t focused on higher education, Romney’s few statements on the topic seem to be consistent with his gubernatorial record. Representative Virginia Foxx (R-NC), chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Higher Education, has announced her support for Romney’s presidential campaign.

  • During his time in office, Romney created a merit-based scholarship that provides full tuition to a state university or college to the top 25 percent of high school students graduating from public schools, including charter schools.
  • In 2004, he vetoed a proposal to allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities. He has reiterated the stance during the campaign. He said earlier this year: “I love legal immigration. I’m happy to help legal immigrants but illegal immigrants coming here getting a break—a $100,000 break on college tuition financed by taxpayers makes no sense.”
  • Romney’s campaign to fight corruption in Massachusetts’ 29-campus higher education system effectively forced University of Massachusetts President William M. Bulger from office when it revealed Bulger’s continued communication with his brother, fugitive mobster James ”Whitey” Bulger.
  • Romney has highlighted recent college graduates unemployment rates as part of his jobs plan. In a campaign video attacking President Obama’s jobs record, Romney acknowledged the recent growth in unemployment rates for young college graduates. He has suggested an investment in human capital to help alleviate the problem.

Rick Santorum

Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum is concerned about the cost of federal interference in higher education and the bias he sees in the education system.

  • On his website, Santorum criticizes the “humanism and secularism being pushed on our children,” particularly in higher education, which he said is “eroding religious belief.”
  • In an interview with the Des Moines Register, Santorum suggested limiting the role of the Department of Education, saying, “It will be incredibly limited. I don’t come in with the mistake that George Bush came in with, that I’m the governor of the United States. I don’t believe it’s the federal (government’s) job to reorder the education system.”
  • Santorum does not support the DREAM Act. In the Fox News presidential debate, he criticized Perry for implying that subsidization is the only way to give immigrants access to higher education.

Despite general agreement about the scope of the Department of Education, the Republican 2012 candidates offer a broad range of policy suggestions and innovations for voters to consider.