The non-debate on education policy by the Democratic presidential candidates, and what they got wrong

Education policy garnered little attention during Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate. How little? The word “school” was only mentioned ten times—and seven of these mentions were references to the candidate’s own experience. In fact, “law school” accounted for five of the ten mentions of “school.”

Though we who work in the education policy industry have gotten used to our darling issues taking a back seat in these debates, it’s still a little surprising given recent news events (e.g., Duncan’s resignation, the Umpqua Community College shooting) that would presumably make for good prompts to discuss issues central to providing a quality education for the next generation.

However, the one education policy issue that did get some airtime focused on the cost of higher education and student debt. Sanders and Clinton both weighed in on the need to eliminate tuition costs for students pursuing a college degree, though they differed on the conditions for making this benefit available. Yet, both candidates are missing the main issue about the costs of higher education.

Prior Brown Center work challenges two of the common myths around these issues.

  1. Students with the largest student loan balances tend to be those with the highest incomes (e.g., doctors and lawyers) and therefore, proposals to reduce student loan interest for all students are at their heart regressiveusing tax dollars to support the well off—and not progressive as the candidates and many people assume.
  2. On average, college degrees are still well worth the tuition investment; however, not all college students make the average return on their investment. And since the costs of college continue to ratchet up over time, more people (though still far fewer than commonly believed) are finding themselves in the position where they cannot afford to make student loan payments while still supporting their families.

While these circumstances are unfortunate and may justify a targeted policy response, a scalpel instead of an axe may be the best tool for addressing these problems. In light of this evidence, instead of focusing on eliminating the costs of higher education entirely, I argue the candidates should debate about how we can mitigate the risk that students face in making choices about college education in a dynamic labor market.