Congress should update the higher-ed law, starting with the student loan mess


Enacted as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society in 1965, the Higher Education Act has defined the relationship between the federal government and the nation’s colleges and universities for over half a century.

Its last full-scale update, in the form of a reauthorization, came in 2008 and lapsed three years ago, though federal higher-ed programs have continued under repeated extensions since. Reauthorization proved a futile and frustrating task, as deeply entrenched interest groups with a stake in every subsection of the statute besieged lawmakers. Nevertheless, the new Congress and the incoming Trump administration should try again, lest widespread dissatisfaction with higher-ed – especially with the financial challenges of securing an undergraduate degree – deepen.

Donald Trump focused relatively little of his time and attention on the cost of college, and the burden of student debt, during his campaign. What little he and the Republican Party had to say after his nomination suggested that they want to revert to conditions that pertained before the Obama administration, when the government still allowed private companies to originate student loans whose interest rates were still set by Congress and whose repayment was still ultimately federally guaranteed.

“In order to bring down college costs and give students access to a multitude of financing options, private sector participation in student financing should be restored,” the GOP platform declared. That echoed earlier remarks to Inside Higher Ed by a Trump campaign adviser, Sam Clovis, who also observed somewhat more innovatively that colleges should shoulder some of the default risk associated with student loans, as a way to ensure that their graduates really do finish school in possession of marketable skills.

The upside of this uninspiring agenda is that Trump’s commitment to it is only slight, so there is plenty of room for Congress to take the lead. If the Republicans who control that body are looking for fresh ideas, they need look no further than the proposal of Trump’s rival for the GOP nomination, former Florida governor Jeb Bush, who floated a student loan reform plan during his unsuccessful campaign. Bush would have given every student a lifetime $50,000 line of credit toward educational expenses, interest-free but repayable through fixed payroll deductions over 25 years. It’s progressive: high-earning borrowers potentially pay back more than they’ve borrowed (up to a maximum of $87,500), while low earners may pay back less. Yet unlike plans for free tuition, this one acknowledges the fact that college is an earnings-enhancing investment, and so it is appropriate to ask students to shoulder some of the cost.