Panel Touts Conservative Policy Proposals for Higher Ed

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter 

As higher education policies get debated throughout the ongoing economic plight imposed by the pandemic, a group of higher education experts highlighted policies that those in the conservative sphere should be advocating in favor of. 

The conversation, held on Wednesday, is a follow-up to a round table held at the outset of President Joe Biden’s administration and was meant to serve as a call to action for what conservative leaders should aim to propose — instead of critiquing policies that they are simply against. 

“What I'm particularly interested in is: what should conservative be for when it comes to solving real problems for American students and families and communities when it comes to higher education?” said Frederick Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, during the panel’s discussion.

On the policy front, the guests stressed the importance of promoting clearer guidance for student loan repayment plans, a focus of potential loan forgiveness for borrowers with smaller debts, additional transparency for consumers, and a reassessment of costs based on what colleges are providing for their students.

When it comes to the potential for student loan forgiveness Beth Akers, a resident scholar at AEI, took issue with more liberal proposals that have aimed to offer forgiveness up to $50,000.

“The people who struggle the most are actually people who have small balances. A lot of that is because people start college, then they don't finish, they don't have a degree that gets them the access to higher-paying jobs, but they still have to then pay back their debt. So they're in trouble,” Akers said.

Andrew Kelly, a senior vice president for strategy and policy at the University of North Carolina System, largely echoed these sentiments and called for a “more humane” student loan system that focuses on making the repayment process for borrowers more simple, pointing to a framework put forward by Jeb Bush’s 2016 presidential campaign.

The guests urged congressional leaders like Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), ranking member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) committee, and Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.), ranking member of the House Education and Labor committee, to seek to simplify repayment options by overhauling the income-driven repayment (IDR) system.

“It's actually a set of messy programs that in theory cover everyone, [but] in practice cover whoever is really hyper aware of policy and knows how to go out and get the benefits,” Akers said. “So we’ve got to get rid of that menu of repayment plans that create the current safety net, and just put one income-based repayment system in place.” 

Under a singular IDR system, Akers would seek to have the IRS withhold income from all student loan borrowers’ paychecks — based on their earnings — in order to make repayments more affordable.

“Then we can do student loan forgiveness like we currently do after long periods of time if someone experiences that their debt is unaffordable in the long run, not just in a moment in time,” Akers said.

By changing the scope of current forgiveness proposals and focusing instead on borrowers that are economically disadvantaged due to noncompletion of degrees, Akers said that the pursuit of higher education can still be made more attainable to borrowers and alleviate some risk that low-income students take.

“We need to make it so that higher education isn't so risky that low-income students can't try it,” Akers said. “We need to make it safe for people to try college regardless of the familial income that they come from, but not to give away the farm to people who don’t need it.”

In terms of transparency, the panelists also highlighted a need for access to information so borrowers can better understand the true cost of a given program.

Akers said students shopping for college should be able to look at a given institution's cost, compare those fees to the earnings of the school’s graduates and then consider whether the trade-off is worth it.

“It's so basic. It's exactly like the underlying principle in every economic transaction you can imagine, except it can't happen in higher ed because of the advantages that we've given institutions in terms of them having access to all of their consumers’ financial information to perfectly price discriminate and charge them the highest price that they think they could possibly ever be willing to pay,” Akers said.

Kelly pointed to improvements made to the College Scorecard, saying that new data made available could better inform students and stressing that further information could benefit students even more.

“You don't necessarily know what you get until you're in it, and in some cases until you’re way downstream from what you got,” Kelly said. “You may say, ‘Boy that was really worth it.’”


Publication Date: 3/5/2021

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