The Ripple: The Cost of the Election for College Students

Maia Spoto and Julia Richardson

There are numerous important issues in the United States that could be severely impacted by the outcome of the 2020 election. One of these issues is higher education and the anticipation of what the future looks like for college students. A few members of the Northwestern community weighed in.

KUMAR RAMANATHAN: If the government is able to make public colleges and universities much lower cost, and in many cases free, we should expect there to be some kind of impact on private universities.

MAIA SPOTO: From the Daily Northwestern, I’m Maia Spoto.

JULIA RICHARDSON: And I’m Julia Richardson. Welcome to The Ripple, a podcast on the effects of state and national politics on the Evanston and Northwestern community.

MAIA SPOTO: College is expensive, and it’s getting pricier every year. With the election just a month away, prospective voters are wondering what exactly presidential candidate Joe Biden has in mind to make college more affordable and accessible.

JULIA RICHARDSON: Biden’s higher education policy proposal includes a few prongs. For one, he plans to roll out free four-year public colleges and universities for students whose annual family incomes fall below $125,000 a year. He also wants to provide two years of free community college.

KUMAR RAMANATHAN: If you’re a student applying for college, and you’re not very well off, and you need financial support to attend a private university like Northwestern. But on the other hand, you could go to your state’s public university for free, that’s a pretty significant incentive to go to the public university. So, I think, private universities, if this does come to pass, will have to think about how to respond to that.

MAIA SPOTO: That was Kumar Ramanathan, a Ph.D candidate in Northwestern’s political science department. Ramanathan isn’t entirely sure how private universities would combat this, though he raised the possibility of decreasing tuition. That could make schools like Northwestern more accessible.

JULIA RICHARDSON: Some Northwestern students find other aspects of Biden’s plan appealing. Here’s Ben Chasen, a Medill sophomore and the outreach chair with NU4Biden.

BEN CHASEN: We’re very big on the concept of free college, Pell Grants, student debt forgiveness. Essentially, what we saw with the updated Biden plan was a step towards the progressive in that regard.

MAIA SPOTO: Not only is Biden looking at offering some Americans free college, he’s also expanding the Pell Grant program so more middle-class families will be eligible for the grants.

BEN CHASEN: Doubling the maximum value of what Pell Grants can be inherently increases the opportunities for middle class Americans to attend universities like Northwestern, whose tuitions are high and getting higher.

JULIA RICHARDSON: On top of that, Biden wants to revamp the country’s student loan repayment program according to income, basically eradicating student loans for low income individuals. According to his plan, if you make less than $25,000 a year, you won’t need to make payments, and your debt won’t accrue interest, either.

MAIA SPOTO: If you make more than $25,000 a year, you’re capped at paying 5 percent of your discretionary income toward student loans. Discretionary income’s the amount of money left over after you pay for taxes and necessities, like food and rent.

BEN CHASEN: There’s also a student loan forgiveness plan for people who go into public service. So being a teacher, or other things like that in public institutions, I think it’s a payoff of $10,000 a year.

JULIA RICHARDSON: And for Ben, something is better than nothing, especially compared with President Trump’s plan.

JULIA RICHARDSON: So, what’s Trump’s plan, exactly? We asked political science Prof. Laurel Harbridge-Yong. She’s a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

LAUREL HARBRIDGE-YONG: There’s nothing that I’ve heard him discuss that I would say is a higher education policy plan. You hear more rhetoric from Trump, but I’m not sure there are actually any policy proposals about more of the, you know, free speech and the cancel culture. And this summer, everything with the F-1 visas.

JULIA RICHARDSON: Harbridge-Yong is referencing Trump’s attempt to prevent international students with F-1 visas from returning to their universities unless they could take classes in person. Some accused the president of using the visas, which would normally allow these students to study in the United States full time, to push for reopening of colleges.

MAIA SPOTO: Trump also has a mixed record in handling the student debt crisis. On the one hand, he signed a 2019 executive order facilitating student loan forgiveness for veterans with disabilities. He also signed a student loan payment suspension into law through the CARES Act in response to COVID-19.

JULIA RICHARDSON: But on the other hand, Trump has opposed a public service loan forgiveness program. He’s also moving away from income-based loan payment programs. He’s dismantling oversight of the student loan industry, and appointing people like Betsy DeVos to run the Department of Education. DeVos, for example, has been accused of making it more difficult for students to apply for loan forgiveness programs.

MAIA SPOTO: So while the Trump administration hasn’t carved a clear path for higher education policy, Ramanathan thinks one thing’s for certain: The economic crisis the United States has fallen into under the administration will definitely affect college students.

KUMAR RAMANATHAN: I think that we should think about the economy that students are going to be entering out of this crisis. Will there be any jobs available for them as they enter adulthood? For current college students, there’s a wide range of policies that will affect them beyond just higher education policy and student loan debt.

JULIA RICHARDSON: Biden’s campaign has previously said his proposals, if passed, would total 750 billion dollars over 10 years, funded primarily by taxes on the wealthy. Now, the exact cost is unclear.

LAUREL HARBRIDGE-YONG: The case that Democrats would likely make in trying to pass them is that they would pay for themselves in the future, in terms of the kind of earnings and the payback, through taxes into the system plus kind of spending in the economy. And that it’s worth it for the government to invest now, in these sorts of things.

MAIA SPOTO: Overall, Professor Harbridge-Yong says incremental forward progress is the name of the game for Biden’s higher education plan. His moves would make college more affordable. But they won’t break down all the barriers to success on university campuses.

LAUREL HARBRIDGE-YONG: So at Northwestern, the kind of efforts to make the campus more diverse and more inclusive don’t stop with being admitted. Schools need to continue to be proactive, and perhaps continue to expand the ways that they’re working to make sure that the experience on campus remains more equal for students of different backgrounds, whether that’s kind of extracurricular activities, whether it’s access to unpaid internships versus needing to get paid jobs over the summer, costs of textbooks, costs of other resources on campus.

JULIA RICHARDSON: From The Daily Northwestern, I’m Julia Richardson.

MAIA SPOTO: And I’m Maia Spoto. Thanks for listening to another episode of The Ripple. This episode was reported and produced by Julia Richardson and myself, Maia Spoto.

JULIA RICHARDSON: The audio editor of The Daily is Alex Chun. The digital managing editors are Molly Lubbers and Jacob Ohara. The editor in chief is Marissa Martinez.

Email:  [email protected]

Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @juliaa_grace

Twitter: @maia_spoto

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