Today, college students are saddled with more student loan debt than ever before in American history. The average student loan debt for 2017 graduates was over $39,000, which is a six percent uptick from 2016. Students owe nearly $1.5 trillion in student loan debt. According to the website, StudentLoanHero.com, student loan debt now runs $620 billion higher than total national credit card debt. In addition, the site reports that 44.2 million Americans now carry student loan debt; 11.2 percent of borrowers are more than 90 days delinquent or in default on their repayment; and the average monthly student loan payment (for borrowers aged 20 to 30 years) is $351.
Such burdensome debt not only harms individual graduates and their families, but also the economy as a whole, because these debt-laden graduates often have to decline or delay buying homes and starting families. As far back as 2011, a New York Times piece labeled student-loan debt the “anti-dowry.” Since then, as the above statistics demonstrate, life for college loan borrowers has grown only more beleaguered.
What can be done to address this crisis? In the U.S. House of Representatives, Virginia Foxx (R-NC) has introduced H.R. 4508, “Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act" The PROSPER Act seeks to reform our outmoded system by which colleges and universities attain accreditation, and on which their receipt of Title IV federal funds depends. It would require accrediting bodies to have at least one member from the business world on their board. It also narrows the scope of accreditation evaluation. It would remove a number of burdensome regulations that unfairly target for-profits and online colleges. It would repeal the “gainful employment rule” and forbid the Secretary of Education from creating or enforcing future regulations on the basis of the “gainful employment rule.” It would also permit online schools to obtain state authorization only in states where they have physical locations, rather than in every state in which they have students, as has been previously required.
PROSPER reforms higher education in a number of other important areas, including collapsing the confusing array of federal student aid programs into one grant, and one loan, program. All of these reforms would ease the path for new entrants into the field of higher education, on which much-needed innovation and its concomitant cost-reductions depend.
That said, some among the bill’s strongest supporte rs hope to see amendments added to the proposed legislation. On its website, the nonpartisan higher education group, the National Association of Scholars (NAS), praises PROSPER as a “good start,” which “introduces some important reforms to higher education, many of them in line with NAS’s proposed Freedom to Learn Amendments.” NAS’s lengthy, comprehensive analysis of the many provisions of the bill—the bulk of which this article cannot address here—should be required reading for would-be reformers.
NAS praises PROSPER’s limitation on “the amount of money that students and parents can borrow from the federal government to pay for college.” In 2015, a Federal Reserve Bank of New York study confirmed the “Bennett Hypothesis,” which holds that Title IV student aid has driven up the price of education, incentivizing colleges and universities to raise tuition without fear of its impact, thus miring students and parents in unmanageable levels of debt. I agree that PROSPER’s capping of these loans will go no small way toward combating tuition hyperinflation.
I also agree with NAS in praising PROSPER’s provision to give colleges and universities “skin in the game.” This means that, for the first time, schools themselves will feel some of the negative economic impact that students, taxpayers, and the overall economy feel when students default on their loans. The PROSPER Act would render ineligible for federal loans all academic programs in which students suffer low loan repayment rates (under 45 percent for three consecutive years). Through this measure, universities will finally have a near-irresistible financial incentive to improve the quality of underperforming programs and majors. Up until now, schools have been largely immune to the pain produced by defaults. PROSPER would end that, and not a moment too soon.
At the same time, NAS fears that the current version of the PROSPER Act “lacks the necessary protections for due process, educational rigor, and other important principles of higher education.” On the one hand, “it takes great strides toward empowering students to report discriminatory speech codes. On the other, it “lacks mechanisms to encourage colleges and universities to adopt policies that adequately protect freedom of speech and expression.”
In this vein, I concur with NAS’s endorsement of proposed amendment that would require the U.S. Secretary of Education to investigate all complaints that a school is failing to uphold the First Amendment on its campus, but I also share NAS’s conclusion that the bill nonetheless “fails to provide an effective mechanism to encourage colleges to actually protect free speech.” In its place, NAS recommends that Congress authorize the Secretary to investigate the state of free speech and association, including religiously-based association, on campuses. Finally, and most important, it recommends that schools “found to be malfeasant” by the Secretary “should be denied eligibility for Title IV student loans and grants.”
This final measure will surely cause concern among those in the higher education establishment. Yet, as they well know, all public colleges and universities, as state agencies, are under the same obligation to protect the First Amendment as any other governmental entity. On this the U.S. Supreme Court has spoken consistently for a half-century. If these schools are not moved to comply with the Constitution, then, argue some critics, only a swipe at their wallets can be counted on to attract their attention and compel their lawfulness.
NAS also criticizes PROSPER for merely “tinkering” with the “structure” of the system by which colleges and universities are accredited. Although it approves the above-discussed measures to reform accreditation, it finds that they nonetheless “fail to reform the fundamentally flawed system of accreditation.” Instead, it would have Congress “divide accreditation into two institutionally separate functions: a mandatory assessment of financial stability” and “an optional form of assessment that deals exclusively with the intellectual quality. . . .”
Yes, the PROSPER Act needs to do more to reform accreditation. But, rather than devise new means by which the federal government can attempt to go back and solve problems largely of its own making, I have recommend here what I deem a “cleaner” solution: Follow the Constitution and return power over education policy to the entities to whom the Constitution gives that power wholly—the states. On both constitutional and prudential grounds, what is required to salvage our schools are measures that reduce the federal role in higher education. The most direct, least intrusive way to accomplish this is by making state accreditation alone sufficient for receipt of federal funding authorized by Title IV (of the Higher Education Act). This would break the grip of the regional accrediting bodies, which too often have acted as gatekeepers for the higher-education cartel—blocking the entrance of alternative modes of education and therewith stifling needed innovation and cost controls.
A version of this return to constitutional federalism is contained in Sen. Mike Lee’s (R-UT) bill, S.2228, the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity (HERO) Act, which also has been sponsored in the House by Rep. Ron DeSantis (R-FL, H.R. 4274).
My recommendation here is in no way meant to denigrate PROSPER. Far from it. The bill, as it currently stands, would be a vast improvement over the status quo, especially with regard to its student-loan and skin-in-the-game provisions. However, it maintains too much of the current system, with power concentrated in the federal Department of Education. If it adds the HERO Act’s return to federalism, it is hard to imagine a more powerful antidote to the ills plaguing America’s universities.
This commentary was originally featured in Forbes on July 18, 2018.