The 2016 presidential primary season has gone in a direction very few people would have predicted a year ago. In both parties, “outsider” candidates have taken serious stabs at the nomination, tearing up and rewriting the traditional political playbook in the process.

In the Democratic race, democratic socialist Bernie Sanders has given long-presumed nominee Hillary Clinton a serious run for her money (literally – his small-donor fundraising machine has been setting records left and right).

On the Republican side, reality TV star and real estate developer Donald Trump hasn't just made a good showing but has knocked out most of his original 17 opponents. His lead is so dominant that talk about who will win the Republican primary has mostly turned into speculation about whether Donald Trump can be ousted through a brokered convention.

With all the drama, it's easy to lose track of the actual policies different candidates are proposing. One GOP debate became so chaotic that CNN gave up and captioned it as “unintelligible yelling,” so you could be excused for missing the finer points of the plans candidates are pushing.

When it comes to education, there are significant differences in the candidates' positions that too often get lost in the political theater. In particular, either a Bernie Sanders or a Donald Trump presidency would likely change higher education as we know it.

Here are the details of these candidates' approaches to education that you'll want to know about before casting a vote.

Bernie Sanders

The basic philosophy behind Bernie Sanders' proposed education reforms is that everyone should have the option of going to college without taking on debt. He argues that a college degree today is worth what a high school degree used to be worth, so college should be as accessible as high school.

He also makes the point that having a well-educated workforce will help the economy, so making college more accessible is in the interests of society as a whole.

To this end, several measures he proposes are:

Tuition-Free Public Colleges

The centerpiece of Bernie Sanders' higher-education plan is eliminating tuition fees at all public colleges. He points to countries like Germany that are already doing this and highlights that until the second half of the 20th century, many universities in the United States (like the University of California system) already followed this model.

Under the proposed changes, two-thirds of the funding to make up the difference would come from the federal government and one-third from the states. The money from the federal government would be raised through a Wall Street speculation tax of 0.5% on stock trades, 0.1% on bond trades and 0.005% on derivative trades.

This tax tends to be the most controversial aspect of the Sanders tuition-free college plan. Predictably, the financial industry isn't thrilled about the idea of a tax on financial transactions.

That said, several majors economies already have similar taxes in place, and countries with taxes on financial transactions tended to weather the 2008 financial crisis better.

Lower Student Loan Interest Rates

Since 2006, student loan interest rates have nearly doubled. Bernie Sanders proposes rolling back interest rates to their 2006 level – which for undergraduate loans would mean bringing the rate down from 4.29% to 2.37%.

The plan would also allow students with existing debt to refinance at current interest rates. As a result of these changes, the government would no longer turn a profit off student loans.

Need-Based Financial Aid

Sanders' proposal would require public colleges to meet 100% of low-income students' financial need. Since tuition would already be free, this includes things like room and board and textbooks.

In the same vein, the plan would expand federal work study. Finally, it would launch a pilot program no longer requiring students to re-apply for aid every year.


The most obvious effect of Sanders' college reform plan would be making higher education more accessible by eliminating tuition fees at public colleges and universities and expanding need-based aid.

The secondary effects are harder to foresee. Some argue that expanded access to federal funds could tempt colleges to overspend. To address this scenario, the Sanders plan doesn't allow schools to use the additional federal funds (that is, the funds replacing tuition fees) on non-academic buildings or administrative salaries.

It's also unclear what role private universities would take on in this new model. At the very least, many for-profit colleges would likely lose students and shut down.

Overall, Bernie Sanders' program would mean sweeping changes in the way people pay for college and greater emphasis on federal funding for higher education.

Donald Trump

Unlike Bernie Sanders, who has put college reform high on his agenda during the 2016 campaign, Donald Trump hasn't released a plan with specific reforms to higher education.

However, Trump has given clues to his take on higher education in the past and over the course of the primary season. From what we know, it seems likely that a Trump presidency, like a Sanders presidency, could spell the end of business as usual for colleges and universities.

Here's what we do know about how Trump's policies might affect higher education:

Cuts to the Department of Education

One of Trump's priorities is reducing spending by trimming the federal government, and in this area the Department of Education is a prime target.

Trump has commented that the Department of Education should be cut “way, way, way down,” although he hasn't specified aspects of the Department of Education he'd want to pare down. Among other things, the Department of Education administers several kinds of need-based financial aid.

Over the course of the 2016 campaign, Trump has also talked repeatedly about saving money by reducing “waste, fraud and abuse” in the federal government, including in the Department of Education. Once again, it's unclear exactly what this would entail in practice.

Not Profiting Off Student Loans

Perhaps the only point of overlap between Sanders and Trump when it comes to higher education is that Trump has also criticized the federal government for making a profit off of student loans.

In Trump's words, “That’s probably one of the only things the government shouldn’t make money off – I think it’s terrible that one of the only profit centers we have is student loans.”

As with cutting the Department of Education, Trump hasn't put forward a specific strategy to follow through on, but the implication seems to be that he'd be at least theoretically open to lowering student loan interest rates.

Other Spending Cuts

One plan Trump has released is his tax plan. By bringing down the number of tax brackets and lowering tax rates, the program would reduce the federal government's revenue by $9.5 trillion over the span of 10 years.

Trump has not made public any spending cuts proportional to the reduction in revenue, so it's possible a Trump presidency would include cuts in many areas we haven't heard about yet. Trump's view on education in general is that schools should be locally controlled, there should be more competition between public and private schools, and teachers' unions should have less power, so it's likely these unspecified spending cuts would impact higher education.

Trump University

Donald Trump's most infamous connection to higher education has been his controversial, now defunct education company, Trump University. Later renamed Trump Entrepreneur Initiative for legal reasons, Trump University offered courses and seminars in business-related topics, often for tens of thousands of dollars.

In 2014, Trump was found liable for running an unlicensed for-profit school. There are currently lawsuits on behalf of former Trump University students going on in three states.

So what does this tell us about Trump's potential higher education policies? Well, at the very least, he's probably not in favor of more regulation of for-profit schools!

Ultimately, while Sanders and Trump are both “outsider” candidates who have criticized the practice of profiting off student loans, the similarities between the two end there when it comes to higher education.

Sanders' plan is about making college more affordable and increasing federal funding to higher education with the help of a new tax on financial taxes. Trump lacks a coherent plan that has been spelled out, but the comments he's made on the issue suggest extensive cuts, especially to the Department of Education.

Both approaches would mark a substantial change in the way higher education works, but in very different directions. Higher education doesn't make as good TV as some of the antics candidates have been up to this year, but how we provide college education has a far-reaching impact on what kind of society we live in and how our economy works, not to mention a direct impact on the lives of millions of students, so keep these policies in mind when you go to vote in the primaries and in November!

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