PR Opportunities and Pitfalls as Presidential Candidates Talk Higher Ed Policy

Can a Politician Be “Wonky” and Still Persuasive?

In an age when the President calls opponents of his Iran deal “ignorant,” and the leading Republican candidate for President calls supporters of the deal “stupid,” it may seem that the level of political discourse has gotten about as low as it can go, with the idea of complexity or nuance seemingly tossed out the window.

But there is one exception to this trend and that is in the area of higher education policy. The leading Democratic presidential hopefuls have offered complex — and expensive — proposals for making college more affordable. This is not a surprise since the D side of the aisle has over generations tended to pay much closer attention to this important topic.

Yet the one-sided nature of higher education discourse appears to be changing. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and several other candidates for the Republican nomination have begun weighing in on college issues that were once relegated to the likes of The Chronicle of Higher Education or an occasional New York Times think piece. Most prominent among these issues are the simple notion of “free community college,” and a more amorphous concept called “risk-sharing.” Both of these issues offer public relations opportunities and pitfalls.

Free Community College

The notion advanced by the Obama administration to make two years of community college free nationwide sounds great on the surface, especially to a young person unsure of what type of higher education to pursue, or to a mid-career professional thinking about an education reboot.

With the pitfalls of sounding anti-education in mind, it is difficult for a Republican to navigate this issue. The standard line of criticism – promising to give away “free stuff” is poll driven and a “great sound bite” – might cut it with the voters in a Republican primary contest, but probably not in a general election.books

So what to watch for? On education and many other issues, a standard messaging option for Republicans is to turn to what is going on in the states. For instance, Jeb Bush recently said he supports Tennessee’s state-run version of free community college, which Obama also has praised.

“There are great programs around the country — one of the ones I most admire is a project called Tennessee Promise, where every student that participates gets their community college education, at least for the first two years, debt free, free of tuition,” Bush said in late August, according to The Hill.


Policy makers on both sides of the aisle support the notion of risk-sharing, which some might simply call “accountability.” Supporters of risk-sharing run across the political spectrum, including Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who leads the Senate’s education committee, and Senator Elizabeth Warren, the influential Democrat from Massachusetts.

The aforementioned Bush has not said much about his vision for “accountability,” but he has linked the concept to four-year graduation rates and he has done it in a way that the average person can relate to. “If kids can’t graduate with a four-year degree in four years, there ought to be some payback to their families or to them,” Bush said, according to The Hill, “or there’s got to be some support for the loans they’ve taken out.”

Bush and others on both sides of the aisle have repeatedly cited a statistic that 60 percent of college graduates take more than four years to complete a four-year degree. So-called “on-time” graduation rates stood at 40 percent in 1958, so not much has changed. This is why most colleges prefer to use six-year rates, which are 55 percent over all, according to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

So where does the “risk-sharing” part come in? It usually involves some criticism of colleges and universities, which many politicians are reluctant to do. From a PR counseling perspective, however, there are two relatively easy ways that it could be done without going all wonky. For instance, it’s widely known on campuses that time in school can stretch out because it can be hard for students to get all the courses they need, and because colleges do not offer enough “up-front counseling” for students to help ensure that they complete their course work. Politicians on both sides should press colleges and universities to offer more sections of popular – and required – courses, and they should also press for earlier and more counseling options. Then the PR people for those politicians should make public those straightforward requests.

Free community college and risk-sharing on college costs are just two small areas of discussion in the dynamic landscape of higher education policy. But the fact that Democratic and Republican candidates for president are debating them in a measured and thoughtful manner does offer hope that, on some issues at least, our leaders can be both wonky and persuasive.