Election 2016: Where the Republican Candidates Stand on Higher Education

Higher education is often an ignored issue in presidential campaigns. The 2016 campaign, however, may be different. The focus on higher education looks to be unusually strong, with issues such as student debt affecting many millions of potential voters and receiving multiple mentions in campaign speeches and interviews on both sides of the aisle.

The Republicans are fielding 17 candidates, 10 of whom will be included in the first primetime Fox News debate on Thursday, August 6. Those who did not make the cut, due to low polling, are Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal, Senator Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), former senator Rick Santorum (Pennsylvania), former governors Jim Gilmore (Virginia), Rick Perry (Texas), and George Pataki (New York), and businesswoman Carly Fiorina.

While none of the candidates have released specific, detailed plans yet, the records and public statements of the current top-tier candidates give voters plenty to contemplate for now.


Donald Trump has emerged as a media sensation and the far-and-away frontrunner, polling consistently at around 20 percent despite a crowded field. However, he has said little that is concrete about higher education so far. The real estate mogul told a Tea Party Convention that the Department of Education could be cut “way, way, way down.” On student loans, he agreed with Massachusetts Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren that the federal government should not profit from them but has not elaborated much.

One major connection Trump has to higher education? He started an online, for-profit education company—Trump University, naturally—in 2005 and is now being sued over it. The company was not accredited and did not offer degrees. As a result, in 2010, it was forced to change its name to the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative after the New York State Department of Education told him to stop using the word “university.”

A 2010 lawsuit, brought by a former student from California, alleged deceptive business practices but was thrown out in 2013. A more recent lawsuit, brought by New York attorney general Eric T. Schneiderman, alleges that Trump University made false claims to students. 


There are nine current and former governors in the 2016 race, five of whom made the first debate. Because governors often have major university systems to oversee, they tend to have long track records of decision-making about higher education. We can expect those records to receive intense scrutiny during the campaign. 

Scott Walker

One sitting governor who has not shied from higher education controversies is Scott Walker. He has driven Wisconsin’s liberal establishment to distraction, most notably for signing a budget cutting state funding for the University of Wisconsin by $250 million and removing state tenure protections. Under his reign, Wisconsin has implemented state incentives for high school students to pursue technical education. 

Also controversial was Walker’s proposal to change the UW mission statement by removing the phrase “search for truth” and adding “meeting the state’s workforce needs.” After criticism, Walker said the change was a drafting error.

Some other notable actions by Walker:

  • As a concession for cutting the budget, proposed to designate UW system schools as “public authorities,” divorcing their operations from state control; that plan did not pass.
  • Tried to abolish a board that oversees and scrutinizes for-profit colleges in the state; that plan was also blocked.
  • Signed a two-year tuition freeze in 2013 and proposed another one for 2015-17.
  • Signaled support for a requirement that schools pay a proportion of students’ loans, a requirement intended to keep tuition down. 

Jeb Bush 

Jeb Bush proclaimed himself “the education governor” during his 1999-2007 run as Florida’s top executive. While that pertained mostly to K-12 education, he left his fingerprints on the state’s higher education system as well. Amid much public outcry, Bush eliminated race-based admissions by executive order; Florida is the only state to have done that. His administration then created a program guaranteeing the top 20 percent of high school graduates admission to college, similar to Texas’ law guaranteeing admission for its top 10 percent.

Some other high-profile laws Bush signed:

  • A 2000 law abolishing the Florida Board of Regents that had overseen the state universities since 1965. The law turned the board’s powers over to the Board of Education and individual college boards of trustees.
  • First Generation Matching Grant Program, a 2006 law designed to help low-income students attend college.

Nor has he been inactive since leaving office. Bush is an ardent advocate of for-profit colleges and disruption in the education sector. Anticipating his presidential run, Bush resigned as a paid adviser to for-profit education company Academic Partnerships in 2014. He previously co-wrote an essay, with Academic Partnerships chairman Randy Best, for Inside Higher Ed predicting a move toward the for-profit online model.

Additionally, he recently denounced President Obama’s “gainful employment” rule aimed at for-profit colleges. The rule penalizes colleges if their students have debt-to-income ratios above a certain threshold.

Mike Huckabee 

Former Arkansas governor and Fox News host Mike Huckabee has shown a tendency to break with the Republican Party and side with liberals on higher education issues. He recently came out in favor of a senate bill introduced by Democrat Elizabeth Warren. The bill failed, but would have allowed students to refinance their student loan debt at a lower rate. In 2012, Huckabee supported a Democratic plan to hold down student loan rates.

During his time as governor, Huckabee expanded two state-funded scholarships: the Governor’s Distinguished Scholarship and the Academic Challenge Scholarship. He supported a measure that, if it had passed, would have allowed the children of illegal immigrants to receive the Academic Challenge Scholarships.

Huckabee’s administration increased higher education spending in nine out of the 10 years of Huckabee’s governorship. Huckabee also redirected federal funds to community colleges for career education and work training programs.

While one might not call his record on education spending conservative, Huckabee said in his campaign announcement speech that the Department of Education is unconstitutional and “needs to be expelled.” On his website, he expresses support for reforming colleges so that they “make sense for the jobs of tomorrow,” which is vaguely worded but may be a sign he wants colleges to improve the return on student investment. 

Finally, during his 2008 presidential campaign, Huckabee made it clear he believes that public schools should teach creationism alongside evolution. That is a position associated with K-12, but as this Inside Higher Ed piece noted, it has implications for higher education. 

Chris Christie 

Another governor whose conservative credentials are considered less than pure is Chris Christie of New Jersey, even though he gained considerable national attention by battling K-12 teachers’ unions.

Christie has not been AWOL in the higher education arena. To start, he appointed the state’s first higher education secretary in 2011, a position that was created before he took the office in 2010.

Here are some higher education policies Christie has authorized:

  • Signed a bill reducing the Rutgers University Board of Trustees by six members; the board agreed to cut another 12, bringing the formerly 59-member board down to 41.
  • Signed a bill giving Rutgers a medical school and designating Rowan University as a research university. He wanted to merge the Camden campus of Rutgers into Rowan University; that did not happen, but bill partnered the schools to create a new College of Health Sciences in Camden.
  • Signed New Jersey’s version of the DREAM Act, allowing illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition at public colleges.
  • Signed off on an agreement establishing a partnership between New Jersey’s and Mexico’s higher education institutions.
  • Signed a bill establishing a College Affordability Study Commission, tasked with exploring a “Pay It Forward” program. This proposal involves the state covering students’ tuition by allowing them to instead pay for college through a fixed percentage of their future income. 

In addition, Christie has supported the following ideas:

  • “Income share agreements,” which allow students to pay a percentage of their future income in return for private financing of their education.
  • Tuition cost itemization, which allows students to know where their tuition money is being spent and have a choice in how it is used.
  • “Stackable credentials,” allowing students to enroll and earn credentials at multiple institutions without having to retake credits.
  • Expanding apprenticeships and training programs and strengthening links between schools and employers.

Christie recently criticized “making higher education free” as the “liberal approach;” he instead favors expanding the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant and Perkins Loans programs. He also favors tax credits for individuals or businesses that provide student aid.

John Kasich 

John Kasich of Ohio has had a busy year when it comes to higher education. In February, he issued an executive order creating the Ohio Task Force on Affordability and Efficiency in Higher Education. The nine-person group is tasked with finding ways to cut costs while maintaining quality.

In July, Kasich signed a budget that will freeze tuition for two years at state colleges and universities. The budget also increases state funding for a program to help poor students get college credit; it sets aside funds for dealing with campus sexual assault; and it increases funding for several state scholarships.

Some other policies Kasich has enacted:

  • Performance-based funding, tying state funds to college outcomes. Previously, Ohio’s colleges and universities received funding based on enrollment.
  • Expansion of dual enrollment; Kasich signed into law a bill requiring public schools and colleges to partner to provide college-credit courses to middle and high school students.
  • Military privileges, including college credit for military training, more advising for veteran students, and priority course registration. 

Rick Perry 

While former Texas governor Rick Perry did not make the debate, he was not far from Kasich’s and Christie’s polling numbers, and he has an extensive higher education record overseeing the University of Texas system.

Perry was briefly the frontrunner when he launched his 2012 campaign; it eventually crumbled and he dropped out. During that campaign, Perry’s written campaign plan called for defunding half of the federal Department of Education, but he later said during a debate that he would eliminate it completely.

As governor, Perry pushed for university transparency and to make universities operate more like businesses. In 2010, Texas A&M began tracking faculty members’ monetary value to the university on a spreadsheet. The prior year, Perry signed into law a bill requiring colleges to post course syllabi publicly, along with student evaluations and other information.

More recently, Perry made national headlines for a clash in the University of Texas system. Perry’s appointees on the UT Board of Regents had a very public feud with UT Austin president Bill Powers, with some accusing Perry of wanting Powers out for political reasons. The legislature censured and nearly impeached Regent Wallace Hall for his zeal in probing Powers, though Perry stuck by him. Ultimately, the board asked Powers to resign, and a February report showed that the former UT president was complicit in fostering unethical admissions practices. 

Other actions and comments by Perry include:

  • Perry made a highly publicized call for Texas universities to develop a $10,000 degree; by 2013, over a dozen schools came up with some version of that.
  • During his 2013 State of the State address, Perry promoted tying at least 10 percent of state funding to graduation rates, an idea that has not come to fruition.
  • Recently, Perry has criticized President Obama’s plan to tax “529” college savings plans to pay for his “free community college” proposal. 


Three freshman senators are major players in the 2016 race. All have ties to the Tea Party and have very similar voting records when it comes to higher education.

All three voted with their party for the Bipartisan Student Loan Certainty Act of 2013; that bill was the culmination of a year of attempts by Republicans and Democrats to compromise on prohibiting interest rate increases on borrowers. All three also voted in 2014 to block Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren’s bill to allow students to refinance their student loan debt at a lower rate. Finally, all three have also publicly supported, with varying levels of vigor, abolishing the Department of Education. 

Marco Rubio 

Florida senator Marco Rubio has been the most active and vocal of the three senators on the issue of higher education. Rubio has an intimate connection with academia; he has been an adjunct professor of political science at Florida International University during his five-year run in the Senate. He also has several ideas for reforming the system, which he refers to as a “cartel.”

Rubio’s activity has included:

  • Cosponsoring multiple times, with Democratic Oregon senator Ron Wyden, a bill called the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act. The bill would require the federal government to post return-on-investment data, intended to shed light on college quality and help incoming students make better decisions.
  • Working with Democratic Colorado senator Michael Bennet on an amendment allowing for legislation to award federal funding to innovative “outcome-based” higher education providers. The goal is to let students use federal financial aid dollars at unaccredited programs that demonstrate high quality and good student outcomes.
  • Cosponsoring a bill, with Democratic Virginia senator Mark Warner, to expand income-based student loan repayment.
  • Raising the idea of a federal pilot program to certify and hire government workers based on skills learned outside of a traditional education setting.
  • Publicly supporting human capital contracts, wherein private investors could pay for students’ tuition in return for a cut of their income after graduation. 

Rand Paul 

While Kentucky senator Rand Paul, whose father ran for president in 1988, 2008, and 2012, pledged during his campaign announcement speech to eliminate the Department of Education, he would retain the Pell Grant program as a federal function. Another idea Paul put forth in that speech and repeated at the August 3 “Voters First Forum,” a New Hampshire forum featuring 14 of the Republican candidates, is to make college tuition deductible. Details are slim, but Paul said Monday that he would tie student loan debt to work, making it deductible “over your entire working career.” Critics argue that idea would primarily benefit wealthier students. 

Ted Cruz 

Cruz, the junior senator from Texas, is more known for his opposition to the Affordable Care Act than his positions on education. But his failed 2013 amendment to defund Obamacare also would have affected higher education, as the amendment also aimed to defund the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010. The reconciliation law expanded Pell Grants, adopted direct federal lending, and lowered monthly student debt payments for borrowers under income-based repayment plans. Paul and Rubio both cosponsored Cruz’s amendment to squash these policies. 

Recently, Cruz has spoken out against race-based college admissions. In an interview, he compared California’s negative quotas against Asian students to the Ivy League’s historical negative quotas against Jews. 


Like Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson is banking on his appeal as an anti-establishment non-politician. His background in higher education appears thin, though he has spoken out on the topic. He wrote an op-ed in February stressing the importance of an educated populace and arguing for personal responsibility over the “free college” ideas espoused by the president. In the op-ed, Carson takes for granted that society should strive to “increase the number of people graduating from high school and seeking higher education.”

In June, Carson said the Department of Education should “monitor institutions of higher education for political bias” and withhold funding if it finds such bias. He said he would “change the function” of the department and that eliminating it altogether might be a mistake given that America is behind other countries in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education.

Carson said in July that he would require colleges and universities to foot the bill for the interest rates of student loan borrowers. This policy, which forces colleges to have their “skin in the game,” is intended to incentivize colleges to control costs and to maintain sensible admissions standards. 


While any debate will be too short to fully learn all of the candidates’ higher education views, voters and observers can expect the subject to come up during the campaign. Student loan debt, campus rape, and “free college” have been mainstream issues recently, and candidates have acknowledged this in their public statements and will likely continue to do so. Reform of higher education may have finally gained the attention it has long needed.