A Higher-Ed Guide to 4 Presidential Contenders

April 16, 2015

Over the past few weeks, four candidates have officially announced that they’re running for president. The Republican field includes three U.S. senators: Florida’s Marco Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants who is pitching himself as the fresh face of the GOP; Texas’ Ted Cruz, a conservative Christian and Tea Party hero; and Kentucky’s Rand Paul, a libertarian who is positioning himself as the candidate for young people. The Democratic field has just one contender so far: Hillary Rodham Clinton, the former first lady, senator, secretary of state, and household name.

Here’s where they stand on three issues that matter to colleges: affordability, immigration, and science.

Hillary Clinton

College Affordability. Before she became secretary of state, in 2009, Ms. Clinton spent eight years on the Senate education committee, focusing on nontraditional students and borrower rights. While few of her higher-education bills cleared Congress, portions of her Borrower Bill of Rights made it into law, as did pieces of her Nontraditional Student Success Act.

During her first run for president, in 2008, Ms. Clinton pledged to increase the maximum Pell Grant, double the main education tax credit, and create new grants for colleges and job-training programs. She called for a "cost calculator" similar to the one that the Education Department has since created, and promised more information about college costs and graduation rates. Her higher-ed platform for 2016 is likely to hit many of the same themes.

On Tuesday, in a roundtable discussion at a campus of Kirkwood Community College, in Iowa, she endorsed President Obama’s plan to make community college free and said college should be "affordable and open for everybody willing to work for it." She spoke about the value of income-based student-loan repayment — a priority of the Obama administration — and took aim at for-profit colleges that "take all this money and put all these young people and families into debt."

Immigration. As secretary of state, Ms. Clinton led efforts to double the number of Americans studying in China and to increase student exchanges with Latin America and the Caribbean, India, and Indonesia. She granted visas to some scholars who had been barred from the United States based on their ideological views, and lifted an embargo on academic travel to Cuba. While her efforts were undercut by subsequent policy decisions and inadequate funding, international educators have praised the administration’s unprecedented commitment to academic exchange.

During her Senate career, Ms. Clinton co-sponsored several versions of the Dream Act, which would provide a path to citizenship for young people who were brought to the country illegally as children. She also voted for comprehensive immigration reform.

Science. The only candidate (so far) who believes that human activity is causing climate change, Ms. Clinton has long supported research on clean energy. While serving on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, she sponsored or cosponsored hundreds of bills related to energy and the environment. While her support for domestic drilling and "clean coal" has alienated some environmental advocates, most see her as a friend of science.

Photo credit: Bill Clark, CQ Roll Call, Getty Images

Sen. Marco Rubio

College Affordability. Senator Rubio doesn’t serve on the education committee, but he has led efforts to provide prospective students with more information about college costs and graduation outcomes, and to simplify student-loan repayment. He supports the creation of a "unit record" database — a position that puts him in conflict with privacy-minded Republicans — and he has signed onto bipartisan legislation that would create online college-savings accounts that would track students across schools and colleges. He has offered legislation that would promote income-share agreements as an alternative to traditional loans, and has joined with Democrats on bills that would require colleges to use standardized student-aid award letters, and that would streamline income-based repayment.

Like Mr. Obama, Mr. Rubio has called for updating the federal student-aid system to allow more money to flow to competency-based courses (an effort now under way at the Education Department), saying in a speech in 2013 that "it’s not just about spending more money on these programs; it’s also about strengthening and modernizing them."

Student debt is a personal issue for Mr. Rubio, who owed more than $100,000 when he graduated from law school, in the mid-1990s. In a speech declaring his candidacy on Monday, he said that student debt was standing in the way of the American dream, evoking "young Americans, unable to start a career, a business, or a family because they owe thousands in student loans for degrees that did not lead to jobs."

Immigration. A member of the bipartisan "Gang of Eight" senators that proposed an immigration overhaul in 2013, Mr. Rubio has long advocated for immigration reform. He has spoken in favor of granting more green cards to foreign graduates of American universities and backed a faster path to citizenship for Dreamers, young people brought to the United States illegally as children.

Lately, though, Mr. Rubio has taken heat from some immigration advocates for supporting a spending bill that would have stripped money from a 2012 program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, that has shielded hundreds of thousands of young people from deportation. In response, Mr. Rubio has said he does not support canceling the program but does oppose expanding it.

Science. Some scientists were alarmed when Mr. Rubio was named chair, in January, of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That’s because the agency, along with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, oversees the satellites that supply much of the data for studying climate change, and Mr. Rubio is a climate-change skeptic. Last May he told a TV interviewer that he did not believe human activity was causing climate change and that any laws aimed at avoiding the phenomenon would "destroy our economy."

Photo credit: Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Sen. Ted Cruz

College Affordability. Kicking off his presidential campaign at Liberty University last month, Senator Cruz used student debt as a way to connect with the audience. Mr. Cruz, who graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School, told the crowd that he "took over $100,000 in school loans, loans I suspect a lot of y’all can relate to, loans that I’ll point out I paid off a few years ago."

The anecdote was part of a broader narrative about the American Dream, and the candidates’ part in it. But Mr. Cruz made no mention of steps he might take to lower the cost of college, or make student debt more manageable.

During his 2012 campaign for the U.S. Senate, Mr. Cruz called for abolishing the U.S. Department of Education, a move his opponent said would endanger federal student aid. At the time, Mr. Cruz responded that he supported student aid, but believed the money should be given directly to the states to dole out as they see fit.

Immigration. Mr. Cruz wants to undo all of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, both the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and a more recent reprieve for the parents of U.S. citizens and legal residents. Last July he offered a bill to cut off taxpayer funds to expand the deferred-action program, blaming the policy for an influx in unaccompanied minors at the border. "The only way to stop the border crisis is to stop President Obama’s amnesty," he said in a press release.

Science. If scientists were nervous when Mr. Rubio was put in charge of the panel that oversees NOAA, they were positively horrified when Mr. Cruz was named chair of the panel overseeing NASA, one of the key agencies studying climate change. While Mr. Rubio has voiced doubts about climate change, Mr. Cruz has outright denied it. In a recent interview with the Houston Chronicle, he said he planned to refocus the agency on its "core priority of exploring space," adding that "we should not be allowing NASA to have its resources diverted to extraneous political agendas."

Photo credit: Andrew Harnik, AP Images

Sen. Rand Paul

College Affordability. Like Mr. Cruz, Senator Paul has called for eliminating the Education Department as a way to shrink the federal government. On his Senate website, he argues that "more money, more bureaucracy, and more government intervention are eroding this nation’s educational standards".

As the chair of the Senate subcommittee on children and families, Mr. Paul has focused more on elementary and secondary education than on higher education. He made no mention of college in a speech announcing his candidacy, apart from praising his sons for working minimum-wage jobs while they attend college.

Still, Mr. Paul occasionally weighs in on issues affecting colleges, as he did last week in a speech at the University of Iowa that took a swipe at Mr. Obama’s plan to make community college free, and offered another option: making college tuition fully tax deductible.

Immigration. Like Mr. Cruz, Mr. Paul favors ending the president’s program to defer deportation for immigrants who were brought to the country illegally as children. However, he has been open to alternative measures, such as expanded work visas. And he has argued that the Republican Party needs to be more inclusive if it wants to win over minority voters.

Science. Mr. Paul is among several Republicans in Congress who have denounced what they see as frivolous and wasteful spending by the National Science Foundation. But he is adamant that Republicans aren’t anti-science. In an opinion essay titled "No, the GOP is Not at War With Science," published in Politico this January, Mr. Paul and Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who leads the House science committee, said they simply want to ensure that taxpayer money is being spent wisely. "Scrutinizing science funding isn’t the same as attacking science," they wrote.

Photo credit: Daniel Acker, Bloomberg, Getty Images

Kelly Field is a senior reporter covering federal higher-education policy. Contact her at Or follow her on Twitter @kfieldCHE.