How Each Presidential Candidate’s Education Policy Will Change The Workforce

We break down the candidates’ education policies and how the winner will decide the kind of workers you’ll be hiring over the next decade.

How Each Presidential Candidate’s Education Policy Will Change The Workforce
[Photo: Everett Collection via Shutterstock]

The three remaining presidential candidates are making big promises to college students in an effort to snag their votes. But policies about tuition, college debt, and standardized testing don’t just impact students. They will directly influence the quality of employees that will flood the workforce in the years to come. Anyone interested in hiring tomorrow’s talent should be paying attention.


To help cut through the noise, we’ve closely studied the policy documents and speeches to highlight the most important parts of Clinton’s, Sanders’s, and Trump’s educational platforms, and how they will influence tomorrow’s workplace.

Bernie Sanders

Key quote. “We need to make public colleges and universities tuition-free.”

What he has proposed to do. Sanders’s position on education is simple: He’s vowing to make it free to attend public colleges and universities. Under his College for All Act, students who are accepted into a state school will be able to attend for free, regardless of how much their families earn.

  • The average yearly cost of in-state tuition at a public university is over $9,000, which works out to be $70 billion a year across the country.
  • Sanders wants to improve working conditions for professors, many of whom currently don’t have job security, by ensuring that 75% of instruction at public universities will be taught by tenured or tenure-track professors.
  • He plans to cut student interest rates to 2.32%, which is nearly half the current rate of 4.32%.
  • Sanders says he can cover all of the federal costs of his higher education policies by imposing small taxes on Wall Street: a 0.5% speculation fee on investment houses, hedge funds, and stock trades; 0.1% fee on bonds and 0.005% fee on derivatives. States would also have to foot one-third of the bill.
  • Sanders has also discussed improving the quality of education for the country’s youngest learners with the Foundations for Success Act, which allows states to compete for grants that will provide children from the ages of six weeks to kindergarten access to full-time education programs. He has not specified exactly how he will pay for this, but it will likely come from tax revenues and military spending cuts.

How would this affect the future workforce? If Sanders won the election and was able to get Congress to approve these bills, America’s education system would look similar to the system in Sweden, Ireland, and Mexico, among other countries that offer tuition-free university education.

His policies would not necessarily result in a better-educated workforce, a promise he has made at stump speeches. Forty-five percent of American 25- to 34-year olds have a college education; that figure is lower in many other countries–like Finland, Slovenia, Germany, and Brazil–that offer free tuition.

However, more students will graduate with little to no debt, which will have an impact on the choices they make with their careers. A 2008 study found that 40% of recent graduates took a job that provided higher pay but less satisfaction in order to pay their student loans. Regret over job choice adversely impacts employers as well as employees. Unhappy workers spend hours a week looking for another job, which costs employers millions every year in lost productivity.


Sanders’s plan also has the potential to make the workforce more entrepreneurial. One study found that of the recent college graduates interested in starting a business, 47% said that their outstanding student debt affected their ability to do so. This might change if students were starting their careers with less debt.

Finally, if Sanders is able to bring about his early childhood education initiative, he could significantly reduce the costs of child care, which will help working parents who currently pay up to $17,000 annually.

Experts from the Tax Policy Center have argued that the Wall Street tax would bring in far less money than Sanders is expecting. Critics have also questioned whether states will be willing to pay for the remaining one-third of the program costs. Finally, some believe that the quality of education will go down with Sanders’s plan. Right now, students often choose to attend the school that they believe will serve them best, whether it is private or public. But if going to a state school suddenly became free, students might choose that route based on a financial basis alone, regardless of the quality of the education or what kind of programs are on offer.


Hillary Clinton

Key quote. “I have a plan to make college affordable: Debt-free tuition if you go to a great public college or university.”

What she has proposed to do: Clinton’s plans are more nuanced than Sanders’s, but accomplish similar goals of reducing the amount of student debt.

  • Clinton doesn’t vow to make public colleges tuition-free, but in her New College Compact, she promises that students will not have to take on debt to attend a public college in their state. Her plan requires families to contribute (although she doesn’t specify how much) and students will have to work 10 hours a week to chip in.
  • She promises to overhaul the student loan system by creating an income-based repayment program that promises borrowers they will never need to spend more than 10% of their income paying back loans.
  • Clinton will devote $25 billion to supporting private colleges that serve minorities. These funds will boost the endowment of these colleges in order to lower the cost of attendance; they will also help to improve the outcomes for students.
  • She also focuses on educational programs that aren’t part of higher education institutions, such as coding bootcamps and Nanodegrees. She will experiment with allowing federal student aid to be used for “career rebooting” programs that have proven to be effective.
  • All of these initiatives will cost $350 billion over the next decade (or $35 billion a year), which she says will be fully paid for by closing tax loopholes and expenditures for the richest Americans.

How would this affect the future workforce? Clinton’s education initiatives would allow students to graduate with less debt, which would give recent graduates more flexibility with their careers, much like with Sanders’s plan.


Her policies might also result in a more diverse workplace, since she is placing a particular emphasis on supporting minorities. Fast Company regularly covers the struggles that minorities face in the workforce. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) and other minority supporting institutions have an important role to play in higher education. According to a big survey conducted last year, black graduates of HBCUs were more likely to thrive during and after university than those who graduated from predominantly white institutions. However, HBCU graduates are more likely than graduates of other colleges to finish their degrees with high levels of student debt. Clinton’s program may help to chip away at this.

Clinton’s policies could equip the workforce with more technical skills, since government funding will be used to help people to take classes online. This could be a boon to e-learning platforms like Skillshare, Coursera, and EdX.

Some have questioned whether Clinton’s estimates are realistic, expecting her policies to cost more in the range of $70 billion a year (closer to Sanders’s cost estimates). Brookings analysts have also argued that most of this spending will go toward helping students refinance their loans, rather than targeting current students who need the money most.


Donald Trump

Key quote. “I’m a tremendous believer in education. But education has to be at a local level. We cannot have the bureaucrats in Washington telling you how to manage your child’s education. So Common Core is a total disaster.”

What he has proposed to do. He hasn’t spoken as much about education as his Democratic rivals. Trump does not include education in his list of key issues on his campaign website.

  • Trump has said that he plans to weaken the power of the Department of Education in his effort to shrink the government.
  • Trump wants to eliminate the Common Core–a set of standards imposed on K-12 students at public school–arguing that this initiative places too much power in the government’s hands.
  • He has criticized the government for profiting from college debt. However, he has not provided clear guidelines about how he would change the situation.

How would this affect the future workforce? By weakening the Department of Education, Trump could potentially reduce federal education spending. Nonpartisan experts believe this will hurt community colleges and other state public schools that rely on the government for funding. This would deter many young people from attending university. And given that higher education is an important sector of the economy in many parts of the country, it could lead to a mild recession in some areas. And for companies, this could present major hiring challenges, particularly since nearly 75% of employers are currently in the market to hire recent college graduates.


Finally, it’s important to point out that the Common Core is not a federal law, but something that states chose to adopt. In fact, six states never implemented it. So Trump would not be able to eliminate it since it doesn’t fall under the president’s scope of influence.


About the author

Elizabeth Segran, Ph.D., is a senior staff writer at Fast Company. She lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts


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