Higher Education

Education could be a big election issue — so who’s getting the most money from higher ed?

In the donation race, Clinton, Sanders, Bush take top spots so far

Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton speaks during a campaign event at Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016.

Not for decades have national issues that affect colleges and universities – such as financial aid allocation, student loan debt and campus diversity – been as prominent in a Presidential race as they are this year, political experts say. And while it’s too early in the game to declare a higher-ed favorite candidate, the industry has begun to puts it money on the line.

“Higher education is much more of an issue than it’s been in the past,” said Amy Laitinen, director for higher education at the nonprofit think tank New America. “It played some in 2012, but that was a re-election. This time, people have to say something new.”

A look at the early donation records shows that among those who work in the generally conservative for-profit college sector, the Democrat Hillary Clinton is doing surprisingly well. And among all individual donors from the ranks of higher education, Bernie Sanders is running second to Clinton, ahead of all Republicans.

People employed by colleges and universities (both nonprofits and for-profits) had donated a total of $2.8 million to presidential candidates by the last time donations were tallied, at the end of October, and had given to Democratic candidates over Republicans by a margin of about three to one, according to data from the nonpartisan group the Center for Responsive Politics. The group tracks the gifts of individuals connected with or employed by universities; the institutions themselves are not permitted to collect money for candidates.

Clinton dwarfed all other candidates overall in fundraising from these individuals, which might be expected since she is the Democratic frontrunner; also, she came out in August with a plan to lower student debt levels. Bernie Sanders, who has proposed making public colleges tuition-free, is significantly behind Clinton, but is nonetheless the second biggest recipient of higher education employees’ campaign cash as tallied so far.

Sanders had secured $364,903 in donations; Clinton had taken in $1,699,641, almost four times as much. The Republican Jeb Bush occupied a respectable third place with $205,923. It may not surprise anyone who’s been on a college campus recently that Donald Trump was in the rump of the pack, with $6,350 at the last tally.

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Those employed in the for-profit higher education sector (who gave 70 percent of their donations to Republicans in the 2012 campaign) were making Bush their top choice in the early going, with campaign contributions of about $15,000, but Clinton was running a close second with nearly $12,000 from that sector, the data show.

Higher ed watchers caution that for-profit colleges depend more on political contributions to gain influence than their nonprofit peers do. Both public and nonprofit private colleges and universities have other ways to throw their weight around. They have a fairly formidable lobbying force, having spent close to $57 million in 2015, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. By way of comparison, the oil and gas industry spent about $97 million lobbying last year, while tobacco interests spent about $14 million.

Related: For-profit colleges pumping campaign money to foes of regulations

Also, the larger universities have clout because of the many jobs they provide and the number of students they serve. And the leaders of the more elite universities, such as Harvard and Yale, can leverage their prestige.

Experts also caution that people who work for a college or university may make their contribution decisions based on a candidate’s position on non-education issues such as abortion, gun control, or taxes.

“They could be giving for so many other reasons, not because of the higher education policies of that candidate,” said Laitinen. “And universities’ influence and power overall is much more in constituency rather than in dollars.”

Still, university staff members are giving in significant numbers. While employees of the massive University of California are at the top of the list with $202,000 so far, those of Harvard, Yale and Stanford have contributed more than $100,000 per university. Clinton is the top pick among employees of 19 of the top 20 contributing universities.

The next Federal Election Commission deadline for filing donor information is Jan. 31, although it takes some time after the deadline for the figures to be released.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Higher Education.

For-profit higher education Presidential campaign donations, top recipients

Candidate Total
Jeb Bush (R) $15,050
Hillary Clinton (D) $11,829
Lindsey Graham (R)* $5,400
Marco Rubio (R) $2,800
Martin O’Malley (D) $2,700
Rand Paul (R) $2,000
Scott Walker (R)* $2,000
Ted Cruz (R) $1,400
Ben Carson (R) $1,000
Susan Ducey (3) $1,000
Bernie Sanders (D) $790

Source: Center for Responsive Politics (as of October 2015)


Higher education Presidential campaign donations, top recipients

Candidate Total
Hillary Clinton (D) $1,699,641
Bernie Sanders (D) $364,903
Jeb Bush (R) $205,923
Marco Rubio (R) $74,315
Ted Cruz (R) $69,735
Ben Carson (R) $62,122
Rand Paul (R) $51,544
Carly Fiorina (R) $51,178
Martin O’Malley (D) $42,865
Lawrence Lessig (D)* $38,292
Lindsey Graham (R)* $29,580
Chris Christie (R) $28,950
John Kasich (R) $28,675
Scott Walker (R)* $20,358

Source: Center for Responsive Politics (as of October 2015)

* denotes candidates who have dropped out of the race

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Meredith Kolodner

Meredith Kolodner is a staff writer. She previously covered schools for the New York Daily News and was an editor at InsideSchools.org and for The… See Archive