Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has now slowed to a halt, but that isn’t to say his run was for nothing. The candidate may be best remembered for his ability to shake up the election, inspire young voters and bring attention to back-burner issues — like higher education.
Indeed, Sanders drew considerable support from young voters with his promises of free tuition at public four year colleges and universities, a plan the nonpartisanTax Policy Centersaid would cost $800 billion over 10 years.
And many of his young supporters say college affordability is the issue keeping them from embracing presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
“She’s not quite progressive enough on her stance on higher education,” said Elizabeth Siyuan Lee, a rising senior at Middlebury College in Vermont and founder of College Students for Sanders. “She’s not willing to say ‘We’re going to forgive all student loan debt’ or ‘We’re going to make public colleges free.’ People will accept Hillary’s stance on things, but I don’t think they’re very passionate about what she’s proposing.”
What Clinton has proposed is a debt-free model where students will still pay for the fees associated with college – and ensuring higher education institutions maintain affordable costs – without having to borrow money. Clinton also called for allowing those with student loans to refinance at today’s rates.
"I believe that we should make community college free. We should have debt-free college if you got to a public college or university. You should not have to borrow a dime to pay tuition," Clinton said at a debate last fall.
But she added, "I disagree with free college for everybody. I don’t think taxpayers should be paying to send Donald Trump's kids to college."
When Clinton and Sanders met Tuesday on the eve of the final DC Democratic primary, “reducing the cost of college for students and their families” was among the topics covered, according to a statement from the Clinton campaign.
Sanders supporters are still holding out that Clinton will take a more progressive stance on higher education. Nicholas Kolenda, a rising junior at the University of Michigan and president of the school’s chapter of Students for Sanders, told NBC News he did not favor Clinton’s plan because he believes it will discourage those in higher tax brackets from going to public universities and those in lower tax brackets from saving money while in school.
“College should be a public good rather than a private one,” Kolenda said. “I don’t like her plan as much because debt-free college makes it so people in higher tax brackets pay more for higher education. I think that disincentivizes people from higher tax brackets from going to public schools.”
But while some of these Sanders supporters aren’t embracing Clinton’s higher-education policy, they admit that it’s better than what Republican Donald Trump would provide.
“I think Clinton’s policy is nowhere near as comprehensive as Bernie’s in terms of what it would provide for people,” said Emmet Sandberg, a rising junior at Grinnell College in Iowa. “I’m still going to vote for Clinton because I think she’ll do more for the state of our education than Donald Trump. But, of course, I would prefer if it was Bernie.”
Trump has yet to release an official platform point addressing higher education, although he assured New Hampshire voters in February the issue of student debt was on his radar.
“I’m going to look into colleges,” Trump said in the Feb. 8 speech. “We’re going to do something with regard to really smart financing.”
In a May interview with Insider Higher Ed, Trump’s national co-chairman and policy director Sam Clovis stated Trump did not intend to take a stance to the degree Clinton or Sanders has. Instead, he hinted at broad policies including increasing loans from private banks versus government allocated, as well as having colleges carry some of the risk burden of the loans.
Specifically Clovis noted Trump intends to discourage liberal arts majors who do not attend top schools from borrowing.
Trump himself is in hot water for his higher education endeavors. Thousands of former Trump University students are currently suing the candidate for fraud. The never accredited University became a point of contention in the Republican debates after Trump claimed it had received an “A” rating from the Better Business Bureau, when the University actually garnered a “D-minus.”
While the Democrats drew in support from millennials for their radical stances on uprooting the higher education system, Alexandra Smith, chair of the College Republican National Committee told NBC News conservative students were not swayed by radical education reform.
“The good news for Republicans is that our research showed that young voters, and especially young independents, were not lured in by false promises of ‘free college,’" Smith said. “Instead, these voters expressed a desire for candidates to propose solutions focused on finding new ways to pay for college as opposed to government just footing the bill.”
Yet, even Smith noted the importance of Trump highlighting education reform policies in order to sway young voters.
“In the general election, it will be imperative that he bring that message and plan to campus this fall to reach young people.”