A higher-ed guide to four presidential contenders

Over the past few weeks, four candidates have officially announced that they are running for president. The Republican field includes three US 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.

This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.

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, Clinton spent eight years on the Senate education committee, focusing on non-traditional 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 Non-traditional Student Success Act.

During her first run for president, in 2008, Clinton pledged to increase the maximum Pell Grant, double the main education tax credit, and create new grants for colleges and job-training programmes.

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.

Last week, in a roundtable discussion at a campus of Kirkwood Community College in Iowa, Clinton endorsed President Barack 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, 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 US 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, 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, Clinton has long supported research on clean energy. While serving on the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, she sponsored or co-sponsored 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.

Senator Marco Rubio

College affordability: Senator Rubio does not 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 data base” – a position that puts him in conflict with privacy-minded Republicans – and he has signed on to bipartisan legislation that would create online college-savings accounts that would track students across schools and colleges.

Rubio 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 standardised student-aid award letters, and that would streamline income-based repayment.

Like Obama, 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 modernising them".

Student debt is a personal issue for Rubio, who owed more than US$100,000 when he graduated from law school in the mid-1990s. In a speech declaring his candidacy, 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, Rubio has long advocated for immigration reform. He has spoken in favour 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 US illegally as children.

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

Science: Some scientists were alarmed when Rubio was named chair, in January, of the Senate subcommittee that oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA. That is because the agency, along with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, oversees the satellites that supply much of the data for studying climate change, and Rubio is a climate-change sceptic.

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".

Senator Ted Cruz

College affordability: Kicking off his presidential campaign last month, Senator Cruz used student debt as a way to connect with the audience. Cruz, who graduated from Princeton University and Harvard Law School, told the crowd that he "took over US$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 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 Senate, Cruz called for abolishing the US Department of Education, a move his opponent said would endanger federal student aid. At the time, 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: Cruz wants to undo all of President Obama’s executive actions on immigration, both the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals programme and a more recent reprieve for the parents of US citizens and legal residents. Last July he offered a bill to cut off taxpayer funds to expand the deferred-action programme, 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 Rubio was put in charge of the panel that oversees NOAA, they were positively horrified when Cruz was named chair of the panel overseeing NASA, one of the key agencies studying climate change.

While Rubio has voiced doubts about climate change, 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".

Senator Rand Paul

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

Immigration: Like Cruz, Paul favours ending the president’s programme 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: 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, Paul and Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican who leads the House science committee, said they simply wanted to ensure that taxpayer money was being spent wisely: "Scrutinising science funding isn’t the same as attacking science," they wrote.

Kelly Field is a senior reporter with The Chronicle of Higher Education covering federal higher education policy.