Bipartisan budget proposals seek to address the debt-burden on students, yet merely underscore the need for a drastic overhaul of post-secondary education financing.
The White House’s latest proposal for easing student-debt is a noble but ultimately bankrupt effort, which misses the forest for the trees. The plan includes an expansion of income-based repayment (IBR), makes the American Opportunity Tax Credit permanent past the current 2017 cut off, and places a cap on loan forgiveness for public sector workers. Yet like most college affordability proposals that have come out of Washington, the current plan offers Band-Aid “reforms” that fail to cut to the heart of the structural problems in how we finance higher education. Instead of trying to fix the debt, the conversation should center on solving why students should need to take out such massive debt in the first place, a discussion few in Washington are eager to have.
A common critique of debt forgiveness is that such policies encourage students to take on a heavier financial burden and leads to schools hiking tuition to compensate. On paper, tuition deferral methods like IBR coupled with loan forgiveness are sound. This method shifts the costs from the individual to the taxpayer, as they should if we still value higher education as a public good. Currently, students who demonstrate need can enroll in “Public Sector Loan Forgiveness” (PSLF) which is an IBR plan that forgives debt after ten years of public sector or non-profit employment. The new proposal lifts the needs-based eligibility requirement to allow larger numbers of individuals to sign up, but places a $57,500 cap on forgiveness for public sector workers and requires payments for twenty-five years instead of ten for any amount over that.
Yet despite the White House’s claim that the proposal provides a “safeguard against raising tuition at high-cost institutions,” there is little reason to believe that will be the case. If the school has already been paid, and taxpayers will foot the bill in twenty-five years as the proposal stipulates, what incentive would there be for colleges to keep tuition low? Since schools have nothing at stake, it is likely that they will continue to increase tuition without regard for what happens to graduates. Students who may have considered serving their communities by pursuing careers as, say, public interest lawyers, relying on the promise of loan forgiveness after ten years are now having the rug pulled out from under them. A quarter-century of indebtedness is simply absurd to imagine.
Republicans have also weighed in on higher education spending through their tax code reform proposals. They include repealing or consolidating various credits into a permanent American Opportunity Tax Credit, taxing PSLF, and repealing several tax breaks for students, among several other proposals. While this legislation will likely go nowhere as it is, several of these items could linger for a while and undoubtedly worm their way into more digestible, passable bills.
All this back and forth about restoring the promise of higher education hides the urgent need for a massive overhaul of the way the U.S. finances post-secondary education, something that Washington seems unwilling to do. Thinking back to the hopefulness of 2009 now seems like a lifetime ago. That year appeared to signal a turning point in history: a return to a strong, activist, solutions-oriented federal government. The 111th Congress was the most productive Congress in a generation. Certain sectors of the economy appear to be correcting course, with health care costs dropping and financial markets rising again. Yet the cost of a college education, an issue that President Obama is supposedly obsessed with, has continued to increase during this tenure. As his presidency winds down, it’s easy to feel like the window for passing any kind of comprehensive reform has shut. A large segment of our generation is chronically underemployed. Students continue getting fleeced as the federal government hands out mortgages and lends to banks at lower interest rates. 41% of student loan holders are behind on their payments. Sen. Elizabeth Warren says government should not profit off the backs of students. As one of the few consistent voices advocating for this issue, she must get lonely.
Just as income inequality has become part of the national dialogue through grassroots efforts, reeling in higher education costs is something that requires broader strokes. Local efforts like the Kalamazoo Promise or San Francisco’s Kindergarten to College must be commended for expanding college access to students who might otherwise be shut out. But these programs assume higher education will remain exorbitantly expensive. Rather than trapping students in a debtor’s prison for twenty-five years, policymakers should be deep-diving into an audit of bloated university president and administrative pay, intercollegiate athletic subsidies, and educational outcomes per tuition dollar, among other things. During election years, the Obama White House tends to revisit its college affordability agenda, and this time is no different. But even without re-election to worry about, we have yet to see this administration truly go big on this issue. As campaign season heats up, access to an affordable higher education should be a bigger part of the conversation and indeed, must be a part of any serious policy agenda.