Unfinished business on student debt as US legislators go to polls

Congress remains too divided to tackle crisis

September 11, 2018
US Congress
Source: iStock

Almost three years ago, the US Congress managed to overcome enough of its partisan divides to pass comprehensive legislation that set broad new standards in the complex realm of school testing requirements.

It fed optimism that higher education might benefit from a similar coalescence of positive political energy, helping to tackle mounting piles of US student debt and soothe the associated public anxieties and economic jitters.

But after three years of sporadic effort – and with only a couple of months until a congressional election is expected to bring some major membership and leadership changes to Capitol Hill – it’s simply not happening.

Instead, as the total US student debt races past $1.5 trillion (£1.2 trillion), political divisions over US higher education policy seem only to be hardening: Democrats want to give students more financial aid and better consumer protections, while the Republican majority seeks the reverse, promising to cut college costs largely by trimming federal regulations affecting the institutions.

The stalemate that has largely blocked both parties may have a slight chance of easing next year, if the Democrats regain majority control of the House of Representatives. That’s because Democrat-Republican differences over education policy might be exceeded by the levels of disagreement among Republicans, who have struggled during the past two years to find functional unity on almost any legislative topic.

House Republican leaders wrote a comprehensive higher education policy bill late last year, which was approved by their education committee. But the measure was so unpopular – it would have slashed about $15 billion in student aid over a decade, while cutting regulations imposed to halt abuses of students by for-profit colleges – that the Republicans didn’t schedule a vote involving the full House.

“They are more divided among themselves than with Democrats,” Jason Delisle, a resident fellow at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute, said of the Republicans. Many other education analysts saw that as good news. Passing “nothing is better than what was out there”, said Jared Cameron Bass, an education strategist at the thinktank New America, referring to the House bill.

That danger, however, does not end with Congress. The White House has near-unilateral authority – checked somewhat by the formality of public hearings and the threat of subsequent lawsuits – to write and revise regulations that implement the details of laws passed by Congress. And in higher education, as elsewhere, the Trump administration has been using that power.

Administration officials have already begun the months-long process of undercutting rules that were drafted to block federal aid to low-performing for-profit colleges and to allow loan forgiveness for defrauded students. They’ve outlined future regulatory revisions in at least a dozen other areas, such as accreditation, credit-hour definitions and the rights of religious universities.

Colleges do not appear unified in their assessments of the danger they may face. While many smaller colleges are already consolidating and closing their doors, wealthier institutions seem less fearful.

The president of New York University, Andrew Hamilton, told a conference co-hosted by Times Higher Education on 6 September that Republican attacks on academia could produce real harm. However, he argued that universities should not overreact.

“Republicans say that,” Professor Hamilton said, referring to their heated campaign promises to frustrate academic elites. “But, I assure you, that’s only until their own children apply.”


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