The Trump campaign’s stance on debt-free college: “Unequivocally no”

Trump’s top economic adviser, Sam Clovis.
Trump’s top economic adviser, Sam Clovis.
Image: AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Donald Trump’s top economic advisor came out hard against plans to ease the burden of student debt carried by Americans seeking higher education.

It’s nearly impossible to pin a position on Donald Trump as he attempts to triangulate between the conservative Republican establishment and the populist demands that made him a star. But he’s clearly not trying to win over young voters terrified by the cost of  education they need to succeed economically.

His campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis, an Iowa conservative activist and professor of economics at Morningside College, didn’t mince words in an interview with Inside Higher Ed.

Clovis made clear that the Trump campaign will fight and not endorse Hillary Clinton’s proposal for debt-free public higher education or the Bernie Sanders plan for free public higher education. The response on those ideas will be “unequivocally no,” Clovis said. “How do you pay for that? It’s absurd on its surface.”

Further, Trump will also reject President Obama’s proposals for a state-federal partnership to make community college free for new high school graduates. Community colleges are “damn near free” now, and “almost anyone can afford community college,” he said.

Senator Bernie Sanders and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton have each released detail about how they would pay for their college proposals. Experts tend to find Clinton’s more modest promises to be more feasible than those of Sanders. Trump’s putative scheme to pay off the national debt in eight years, meanwhile, leaves fiscal experts laughing through their tears.

And despite Clovis’ assertion, even community college is becoming increasingly out of reach for many students. Since 2000, the average annual community college tuition has increased by 50%, to $3,521. A recent study (pdf) from the University of Pennsylvania noted that tuition at most community colleges requires students to work more than 20 hours a week, making it difficult for anyone to pay their own way through school.

But that’s just the the tip of the iceberg. Trump would also have  the government get out of the business of subsidizing student loans—a policy that has long been a goal of many conservatives, but is rejected by those who advocate expanded access to higher education, who say it would lead to higher rates and more predatory lending.

There is one stance where Trump’s education agenda reflects concerns held by both sides about the unsustainable increases in college costs and tuition. Clovis said that Trump would like to see colleges bear a larger share of the financial risk when students take out college loans.

And, while Clovis lauded the liberal arts education, he made clear that it should only be for those who are wealthy enough to afford it on their own.

“If you are going to study 16th-century French art, more power to you. I support the arts,” Clovis told Inside Higher Ed. “But you are not going to get a job.”