In their first face-to-face debate, Hillary Clinton dismissed Donald Trump’s plans to slash corporate taxes as “Trumped-up trickle-down” economics, countering with her own proposals to provide debt-free college and refinance graduates’ student loans at lower rates as a better investment in the middle class.

Higher education and student loans were not a focal point of Monday’s debate. Trump has yet to put forward his own detailed proposals on those issues. But the context in which Clinton injected them into the debate — during a larger discussion about the economy, trade policy and taxes — was telling.

Trump’s solution to job creation — renegotiate trade agreements, slash regulations, and cut the business tax rate from 35 percent to 15 percent to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S. — has been panned by some critics as protectionist.

Clinton sounded like a candidate who envisions a future in which the U.S. will need a highly skilled and educated workforce to compete in the global economy. College grads have a significant advantage in the new economy — workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher have claimed three quarters of the 11.6 million jobs created during the economic recovery.

“I don’t think top-down works in America,” Clinton said. “I think building the middle class, investing in the middle class, making college debt-free so more young people can get their education, helping people refinance their debt from college at a lower rate. Those are the kinds of things that will really boost the economy. Broad-based, inclusive growth is what we need in America, not more advantages for people at the very top.”

Clinton defended her votes in favor of trade agreements during her time in the Senate, noting that she opposed the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) because it didn’t meet her criteria that such agreements should create jobs, raise incomes, and strengthen national security.

CAFTA would have expanded the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) to five Central American nations (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Costa Rica and Nicaragua), and the Dominican Republic. Trump called NAFTA “the worst trade deal maybe ever,” pinning it on Clinton’s husband, Bill. NAFTA was negotiated and signed by President George H.W. Bush in 1992, and took effect during Bill Clinton’s first term in office with Clinton’s support.

Trump might have been closer to the mark when he dismissed his opponent’s higher education plans as, “All talk, no action. Sounds good, doesn’t work. Never going to happen.”

Republicans who control Congress have blocked action on legislation that would enable aspects of Clinton’s New College Compact, such as government-backed student loan refinancing. Even if Clinton defeats Trump, she’ll face an uphill battle to win backing for the $350 billion plan unless Democrats take back both chambers of Congress.

Apart from the cost to taxpayers, some critics say the benefits of such a program would fall disproportionately in the laps of high-income families who are repaying their loans. A number of private lenders are already refinancing the student loan debt of borrowers with solid credit and established earnings.

A longtime news reporter and editor, Matt Carter is out to help consumers find the information they need to make informed decisions about their personal finances. He's an avid producer and consumer of news and analysis about new business models and tools, market trends, and politics and regulations. Email: