Thursday, December 5, 2013
Now that the presidential candidates have finished the domestic policy portion of their debates, we should probably know which one has the best strategy for the student debt crisis. The answer is neither.
To his credit, President Obama has led efforts to improve access to higher education during his term in office so far. Obama has reformed the student loan program and redirected money that used to go to banks back into the program to be loaned to students.
New rules set student loan payments at no more than 10 percent of nondiscretionary income, meaning that students can survive taking low-paying entry-level jobs, even in public service.
But Obama's plans do little to control the cost of postsecondary education, which has grown faster than inflation, and leaves the generation now entering the work force in more debt than ever.
Mitt Romney talks about preserving programs like Pell Grants by focusing them on the students who need them most, which sounds like a plan to cut these programs for people at the upper end of the eligibility standards. So at least some students can be expected to take on more debt in a Romney administration. Romney also spoke at last week's debate about the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship program in Massachusetts, which provides full scholarships to high-performing students who attend the state's public universities. That would reduce costs for them, but would also shift costs to other tuition payers, resulting in even more debt for them.
The problem is that colleges and universities are not made to take more responsibility for the debt that they saddle students with before sending them out to join a still-slow job market. The institutions, public and private, have little accountability for the money they spend on administrative salaries and investments in the physical plant. They can afford to do this because students, convinced they need a college degree to compete in the marketplace, pay the price, often with the help of grants and subsidized loans.
That makes the government an accomplice in tuition inflation because these students could not pay their bills without its help. The government should be on the students' side, and use its leverage to force universities to keep tuition and students' debt load low.