For 10 minutes, higher ed takes center stage at Democratic debate

Focus remains on affordability

Kristin Tyndall, EAB Daily BriefingKristin Tyndall, associate editor

In Tuesday night's Democratic presidential debate, Hillary Clinton, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont), and Martin O'Malley raised the issue of college affordability, which has been a popular topic on the campaign trail.

The three candidates touched on college affordability and expanding college access briefly but frequently as a talking point throughout the debate. For example, Clinton mentioned figuring out how to "make college affordable" and "pay down student debt" among her list of "issues that matter to the American people."

Related: Why are all the presidential candidates talking about higher ed?

But in spite of the frequent mentions, higher education got only a few minutes of airtime and moderators asked only one direct question about it: to Sanders, about Clinton's accusation that his plan would make college free for billionaire Donald Trump's (R) kids. Sanders replied that his policies would also force Trump and other billionaires to pay more taxes.

Nevertheless, Clinton and Sanders both found opportunities to promote their plans for debt-free higher education.

Sanders highlighted the simplicity of his plan—particularly in contrast to Clinton's. "I think we don't need a complicated system, which the secretary is talking about, the income goes down … if you're poor you have to work, and so forth and so on," he said. Sanders also argued that college should be as freely accessible as high school is today.

Clinton pointed out that her plan asks students to work through college. "I think it's important for everybody to have some part of getting this accomplished. That's why I call it a compact," she said.

Clinton also criticized colleges for tuition prices. "I want colleges to get their costs down," she said. "They are outrageously high in what they're charging." Clinton also referred to the problem of "cumbersome, burdensome college debt."

Overall, candidates continue to focus on affordability, student debt, and tuition. More recent concerns—and gains—within the industry on improving student success and student employment outcomes were not reflected at the debate.

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