The four leading Republican presidential candidates advocate a hands-off federal approach to education and share many of the same finance-focused policy platforms with few deviations from one another.
After former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney bested Former Speaker of the House of Representatives Newt Gingrich by more than 24 percentage points in the Nevada caucus Feb. 4 – beating out the other two leading candidates by 29 percent – the potential implications for college students remain unclear if the federal government is booted from education policy.
While the debates thus far have largely focused on revitalizing the economy, the issue that will affect college students the most in this election is the affordability of higher education. Republican candidates, for the most part, would like to see market competition bring down costs, but none of the potential nominees have gone into detail on where they stand on federally sponsored college financial aid programs.
“They haven’t said a lot about college affordability yet. They’ve mostly just weighed in around the margins,” Kelly Field, a senior reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, said.
The College Republicans will not endorse a candidate in the primaries, public relations director for the GW College Republicans Chris Wassman said.
Three of the contenders have, at one point in their political careers, questioned the utility of the Department of Education as a regulatory body, but all four agree that education reform should lie in the hands of states, local governments or individual schools rather than the federal government.
Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, plans to eliminate the Department of Education and several other agencies to cut $1 trillion in federal spending, according to his campaign website.
Romney said in the 1990s that the department should be scrapped, and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum called it “unnecessary” in an interview last week with CNSnews.com, but neither is currently calling for complete elimination. Romney noted in 2007 that the Department of Education “can actually make a difference.”
Under Gingrich’s plan, the only roles of the Department of Education would be to “collect research and data” and to suggest optional, innovative practices to be adopted at the local level. But he has not explicitly discussed the implications of a more limited strategy on the department’s federal financial aid programs.
Field predicted that candidates will begin to clarify their positions on college affordability as November nears.
College access and affordability have been in the spotlight this year, as tuition prices and student debt rise nationwide, but Republicans and Democrats are divided on who should be responsible for bringing down the soaring cost of higher education.
Obama said in his State of the Union address that colleges and universities who fail to control costs will be penalized with less federal funding, a move that must be approved by Congress.
Republican candidates promote a more limited role for the federal government in monitoring college expenses. Romney has explicitly said that market competition, especially among for-profit institutions, should be relied upon to bring costs down.
Meanwhile, Gingrich – a former professor of history and geography at the University of West Georgia – believes there should be a college in every state that uses a locally funded work study program to allow students to graduate debt-free, according to his campaign website.
On primary school issues, their proposed policies overlap in areas like charter schools and homeschooling.
The field of candidates believes in parents’ right to choose where their children go to primary school – be it public, private or at home. All except for Ron Paul support voucher programs of some kind and charter schools to facilitate that choice.
In his book “Liberty Defined,” Paul acknowledged “there are always a few who benefit from vouchers, tax credits, and charter schools.” However, he also writes that these practices give too much power to state governments.
Tea Party candidate Santorum, who alongside his wife, homeschooled their six children, has suggested that the time children spend with others close to their own age in the classroom is further from reality than homeschooling experiences, which involve more interaction with adults.
“It’s amazing that so many kids turn out to be fairly normal, considering the weird socialization they get in public schools,” he wrote in his 2005 book “It Takes a Family.”
Paul’s campaign website calls him a “homeschooling champion” for introducing legislation to implement a $5,000-per-child tax credit for parents who homeschool their children.
Gingrich would implement a Pell grant system for all K-12 students to attend the school of their parents’ choosing and extend it to homeschooled students as well, possibly in the form of a tax deduction, according to his website. The former speaker also suggests that homeschooled students should have equal access to government-funded extracurricular activities.