Higher Education

Republican platform for higher ed: Less red tape and less money

GOP leaders say proposals can be gleaned from direction of Congress

Past is prologue.

That’s what Republicans promise in the higher education platform they’ll finalize at their national convention in Cleveland: an approach that follows the direction they’ve already taken in Congress.

Fewer regulations for colleges and universities. Less red tape for students.

Less money.

“Obviously what we do legislatively is a statement of our philosophy and our principles,” said Virginia Foxx, Republican chair of the House subcommittee that oversees higher education and co-chair of the GOP platform committee.

While the party’s presumptive nominee for president, Donald Trump, hasn’t said much about higher education policy, he has mentioned a proposal here and there, such as allowing student loans to be refinanced — something that is not allowed today, and a position he shares with progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren — and tying the availability of loans to the perceived market value of students’ majors.

“An enormous amount of hardworking taxpayer money goes into education in this country,” Foxx said in an interview. “Republicans are very concerned that we get a good return on the money we are spending.”

Proponents of increasing the amount of federal money going into higher education see it differently. The GOP would “massively reduce federal support for students,” said Barmak Nassirian, director of federal relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Related: Some religious colleges forgo federal funding, staying free of civil rights rules

This year the budget blueprint introduced by Republicans in the House included shaving federal spending by $6.5 trillion over the next decade. That would have a significant impact on the Pell program, which annually provides direct grants to more than eight million college-going students from families with typical incomes of $40,000 or less. The education advocacy group the Committee for Education Funding, which opposes the cuts, calculates that they would reduce Pell spending by $78 billion over 10 years.

The GOP budget proposal calls for capping the maximum Pell grant per student at around $5,800 per year for the next 10 years, while President Barack Obama has wanted to tie it to inflation. The House budget would also eliminate a subsidy under which the federal government covers the interest on Stafford loans for lower-income students while they are enrolled in school. The Committee for Education Funding says that cut would add up to $27 billion over 10 years.

This year’s actual spending bills from appropriations committees in the House and Senate — also Republican-controlled — are more modest in their proposed changes than the party’s budget wish list. Both would remove more than $1 billion from Pell for next year, Democrats complain.

Republicans argue spending alone doesn’t improve access to higher education. They have also targeted regulation, saying it vastly increases universities’ expenses — something higher-education lobbyists have also argued, though there’s no reliable research about how much regulation costs schools — and complicates college-going for students.

Lamar Alexander, the Republican chair of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has been pushing to simplify the federal financial aid form, reducing the number of questions students must answer from more than 100 to two. (The idea of streamlining the form has also been supported by Democrats, including Obama.)

Related: Tangled process of applying for financial aid deepens college affordability crisis

Student advocacy groups oppose the funding changes. The nonprofit, nonpartisan The Institute for College Access and Success, or TICAS, estimates that removing the subsidy from Stafford loans would cost students an average additional $4,900 apiece over 10 years. They say a cap on Pell grants would particularly hurt low-income students at a time when the grants’ purchasing power has already declined dramatically.

But House Republicans criticize the way that Pell grants work. Students who go to school less than half time, for example, are eligible for varying amounts of Pell money.

Related: Candidate’s comment reopens controversy over whether college is worth the cost

“I think too much money is given out with Pell grants sometimes without our knowing whether the students are going to stay in school [or] even complete the semester,” Foxx said.

A former community college president, Foxx said students who go to college should do it full time. “If you give them too much time on their hands, their interests go into other things.”

Republicans have at various times also criticized student-loan repayment provisions that allow borrowers to hold their repayments at 10 percent of their incomes and dismisses any remaining debt after 20 to 25 years, and after 10 years if the graduates work for a nonprofit organization or the government.

Some analysts have criticized these provisions for being giveaways to those with graduate-school debt, whose six-figure loans are often accompanied by high incomes. Getting rid of them would save taxpayers nearly $27 billion over 10 years an analyst told the House Budget Committee last year.

“I would be really surprised if your average American knew that we had a government loan program that provided hundreds of thousands of dollars of loan forgiveness for students going to graduate school,” said Jason Delisle, a higher education policy analyst at the conservative-leaning American Enterprise Institute. “I would say here you have the Republicans trying to make the systems less regressive.”

Related: States have cut money for higher education 17 percent since the recession, report finds

For their part, Trump and his campaign have hinted at some positions on higher education, but “he’s been all over the map,” Nassirian said.

“We’re going to do refinancing for people who have loans who literally can’t do anything,” Trump told the Washington Examiner in November. He’s also called for shrinking the U.S. Department of Education and ending the federal government’s role in lending directly to college students by returning to a system in which private banks issue federally guaranteed loans to students.

A Trump campaign adviser told The Hechinger Report that banks could be allowed to consider students’ majors when issuing loans. Fields such as engineering, with high employment rates and earnings, would get preference over disciplines such as the humanities, which the adviser said result in lower incomes.

Related: While federal DREAM Act stalls, some public universities already welcome the undocumented

That idea is particularly controversial, even among other Republicans. It would “effectively relegate access to liberal arts degrees to the wealthy elite” and “represents a troubling ‘nanny state’ attitude toward young people — as if the government knows better than they do which course of study they should pursue,” Republican Sheila Bair, former chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation and now president of Washington College in Maryland, wrote in Fortune magazine.

The Trump campaign has also proposed putting colleges partially on the hook for former students who don’t earn enough after graduation to repay their loans. Last year, Democrats, including Warren, supported making colleges whose students had high default rates repay a percentage of defaulted loans.

“Having the institution have some skin in the game is an issue that is definitely worth looking at,” Foxx said.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.

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Mikhail Zinshteyn

Mikhail Zinshteyn contributes regularly to The Atlantic. His writing about education has also appeared in FiveThirtyEight, The National Journal, CityLab and other outlets. Born in… See Archive