For months the Trump campaign promised a response to Hillary Clinton’s proposal to make college more affordable. That "plan" got released a couple weeks ago and as most pundits would agree it was overwhelmingly underwhelming.
His proposal? Basically just capping student loan payments at 12.5 percent of a borrower’s income and forgiving any outstanding balance after only 15 years.
That's hardly inspiring and less a platform than it is a previously walked plank considering income-based repayment has been the cornerstone of President Obama's higher education policy for eight years now. While a twist on an existing policy might come off as a safe path to keep the critics at bay (which in this case it didn’t), Trump compounded his sin by picking arguably the worse policy possible to piggyback off of.
Income-based repayment does nothing to keep college costs in check, does nothing to improve graduation rates and perversely rewards borrowers who enroll in expensive schools or graduate education. Worse still, it's done remarkably little to stem the tide of student loan delinquencies and defaults. At a taxpayer cost of around $20-billion per year it's the very definition of a boondoggle.
As policy goes, IBR is the emergency room equivalent of helping a bleeding out patient by giving him a blood transfusion rather than sealing up the wound.
A blown chance
Sadly, the link between good economics and more votes is a fickle one. Hillary Clinton’s plan has been widely panned as expensive and unworkable but the political message of not having to pay for college is far more exciting a train to hitch oneself to than lower loan payments and debt, no matter how attractive the terms are.
In retrospect, Trump blew a rare opportunity. It’s clear over the last several months that the architects of income-based repayment and it's sister program, public service loan forgiveness, grossly underestimated these programs’ take-up and costs, but also missed an amazing number of loopholes that benefit doctors, lawyers and graduate students over the poor families it was supposed to assist.
Throw in the fact that they also overestimated the benefits - delinquencies and defaults remain at record levels - and it's hard to see how lawmakers can willingly embrace or find the dollars to fund Clinton’s $350-billion double-down proposal.
That should've left the door open for Trump, and by proxy the GOP, to take advantage of a once-every-four-years national political discussion by offering up practically anything other than less loan debt or more government spending.
Rather than fight the perennial losing battle to keep rising tuition in check, Trump could’ve focused instead on the other side of the coin and offered up a degree-to-work bridge that would leverage private sector investment and help guarantee graduates place into jobs that earn the kind of money they need to keep payments affordable.
He could’ve also just taken the wonk-ish route and simply adopted Governor Bush’s intriguing higher education proposal, which would’ve dumped the federal student aid programs and given all Americans a $50,000 lifetime line of credit instead to use when and where they'd like. No complicated repayment plans, just a one-percent income share for every $10,000 used that caps out at 25 years.
Even the uninspiring proposal he put forth could’ve been far more powerful with some basic repackaging. A written-off student loan is nothing more than a delayed grant. If loan forgiveness is a serious economic option, it's political cousin would've been the cost-neutral alternative of proposing to convert projected loan write-offs into up-front grants for students needing to borrow.
As true as it is that paper beats rock and rock beats scissors, where politics is concerned grants beat loans hands down every day of the week.
Looking a gift horse in the mouth
Democrats have traditionally owned the college affordability issue. Their stance that the public benefits more from higher education than private individuals do by design leads to policies that push program costs onto taxpayers. If you’re young, poor, or both free's an awfully attraction position to get behind.
It's also a politically protected position. Government subsidies get spread so thinly across so many taxpayers that the losses any one individual ends up bearing are so small and masked amongst so many other publicly-funded programs their taxes pay for that it doesn't drive behavior at the voting booth.
If it did, taxpayers would be livid about the billions of lost state appropriations and federal student aid dollars each year that go to more than 900 public college campuses in this country where less than one in the three students actually end up graduating.
At the end of the day, policy proposals show candidates have a nuanced understanding of the issues but it’s their philosophy and vision that gets voters in their corner. Trump had the opportunity and platform to make the case that higher education isn’t an end but a means and that big spending is necessary but can come in part from the private sector through cheaper delivery systems or job opportunities that drive why students enroll to begin with. He could’ve made the case that we can do more with less when it comes to taxpayer funds and plow the savings back into more generous support for those needing it most.
He had the chance and didn’t. Instead he offered a half-hearted variation of a Democratic policy already in place and in doing so left the lasting impression that Republicans have no real national vision, or even a realistic alternative, on an issue that affects tens of millions of Americans.
Economic solutions are what solve social problems but political vision is what gets the people there who need to make them happen. Trump's cavalier approach to higher education policy in this election season is turning out to be as bad as a poorly executed opening in a chess match. While the masses may not see it yet, the experts who know the game can already see the unfolding and inevitable loss.
Note: this post was first published on LinkedIn.