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college affordability
The United States Capitol. A House bill to revamp the Higher Education Act has moved out of committee for debate, while the Senate is still discussing reform ideas in committee. Credit: Kathleen Kordek for The Hechinger Report

WASHINGTON — A bill proposed by Republicans in the House of Representatives could change the college-financing system dramatically, moving billions of dollars out of financial aid programs.

If H.R. 4508, becomes law, college affordability would go from bad to worse, say many higher education experts, and students from low-income backgrounds would suffer most.

According to an analysis by the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office, the net loss of funds to students over the next 10 years would be almost $15 billion if the bill is enacted as written. Other analysts say that figure would be even higher.

The bill, known as the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act, would also make more money and regulatory flexibility available to for-profit colleges, many of which have been cited for high costs, low graduation rates and a history of taking advantage of low-income students and military veterans.

“If enacted, it would decimate the loan repayment safety net for low-income borrowers,” said Ben Miller, senior director for postsecondary education at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank. “It would expose students to unscrupulous actors, especially in the for-profit space. And it would do nothing to actually address the real problems we have around completion and equity.”

The Higher Education Act, first passed in 1965 and revised perodically, regulates how the federal government financially assists postsecondary institutions and students. It governs how federal student loans are distributed, who is eligible for federal financial aid, how loans must be repaid and which institutions can receive federal money. The PROSPER bill was moved out of committee by House Republicans in December. The Senate is holding hearings to develop its own version.

With the national student debt hovering around $1.3 trillion, lawmakers, parents and students have been crying out for a fix to the higher education lending system.

But many see the new bill’s proposed fixes as harmful to those who most need the boost toward the middle class that comes with a college education. For some, it would make college less affordable altogether; for others, it would add to the debt burden they would carry after college.

“If enacted, [the PROSPER Act] would decimate the loan repayment safety net for low-income borrowers.”

To meet its stated goal of simplifying the many federal grant and loan programs, the House bill proposes streamlining application processes, which could help students and their families, but also eliminating several of those programs.

Among the proposed cuts are grant programs, including Teacher Education Assistance grants (for those who agree to teach, after college, for four years in a public school serving low-income families) and Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (additional grant money for qualified undergraduate students from the lowest income levels).

Related: Overwhelmed by student debt, many low-income students drop out

The bill would also eliminate some loan programs — including a key loan program for graduate students — and some beneficial repayment options. These include the option for some low-income students to extend their repayment plans (without extra interest) and a program that forgives loans after 10 years of repayment for those working in government or nonprofit public-service jobs.

For-profit institutions, conversely, would benefit from the proposed bill because it would eliminate the 90-10 rule, which currently prevents these institutions from receiving more than 90 percent of their revenue through federal financial aid. The rule pushes schools to create programs that enable students to be successful after graduation, because some revenie is coming directly from students or employers. Before the 90-10 rule was instituted, for-profit-colleges often enrolled low-income students who had little prospect of earning a degree, obtained those students’ federal grant and loan money, and suffered no consequences when the students dropped out or received a substandard education.

“A for-profit college could be a hundred percent federally funded,” if the PROSPER Act becomes law, Miller said.

“Our proposals offer the same deal for everyone, regardless of occupation, and put downward market pressure on institutions to keep costs down.”

The bill would also narrow the eligibility requirements for deferment of loans and require those in certain types of payment plans to pay more than previously expected. For example, the percent of what’s defined as discretionary income that borrowers must pay under an income-driven repayment plan would increase from 10 to 15 percent. And the bill would require even full-time students from low-income backgrounds to pay interest on their federal loans while they are pursuing their degrees. Currently, students are not responsible for any interest while they are in school.

“Undergrad students with low expected family contributions should not have to accrue interest while in school,” said Jean McDonald Rash, chair of the Higher Education Loan Coalition, a group of financial aid professionals who work to improve federal loan programs. She said the group has many concerns about the bill in its current form.

For example, as noted, the new bill proposes ending the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, which benefits students who go into nonprofit fields or government work and are not likely to earn large incomes.

“We think that’s very important to attract students into those kinds of fields of study,” said McDonald Rash, who’s also a director of financial aid at Rutgers University.

Some believe that with fewer options from the government to pay for school, students and educators would have to think more carefully about how to finance the cost of a degree. Currently, schools don’t have an incentive to lower their prices because students can use government aid to foot the bill, said Mary Clare Amselem, an education policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a right-leaning think tank.

“Overwhelming economic evidence is suggesting that heavily subsidizing federal student loans has led to college tuition increases,” Amselem said. Schools “know that pretty much regardless of what they charge, students are going to be able to find the loans from the federal government.”

Related: Without changes in education, the future of work will leave more people behind

Amselem also believes the new bill would push students to borrow from private lenders, which she says is a good thing. “The federal government controls 90 percent of the student loan market, so they’ve virtually crowded out private lenders,” she said. “I think if we had more options for students, we would have a very robust, very competitive market that would offer really great options for students.”

$15 billion — the net amount of money the Congressional Budget Office estimates would be cut from student financial aid in the next decade if the PROSPER Act becomes law

Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., chairwoman of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, introduced the new bill in December. It was voted out of committee on straight partisan lines and sent for debate in the full House.

“Our proposals offer the same deal for everyone, regardless of occupation, and put downward market pressure on institutions to keep costs down,” Rep. Foxx said in an emailed statement. “Additionally, the PROSPER Act puts additional funding behind the time-tested cornerstone of financial aid for low-income students: the Pell grant.”

Pell grants are awarded to students most in need; to qualify, family income must usually be below $50,000 a year. The maximum grant for the 2018-19 school year is $5,920. Under the proposed new bill, Pell recipients would receive an additional $300 if they’re taking at least 15 academic credits per semester, a provision designed to encourage people to finish college as quickly as possible.

The Education Trust and 34 other organizations — including the NAACP and the National Association for College Admission Counseling — wrote a letter to several members of Congress in which they said the proposed act “exacerbates the increasing burden of student debt and continued inequity in higher education access and outcomes. It would make higher education less affordable, saddle students with greater debt, and push more students into loan default.”

While a bill this vast — nearly 600 pages — has a number of pros and cons, many say it’s not an even split.

“There’s a couple things here and there that aren’t bad for low-income students,” Miller said, “but they are far outweighed by the litany of items that would hurt them.”

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, has said he hopes to see a bipartisan version by early spring that can be recommended to the full Senate.

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Letters to the Editor

2 Letters

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  1. I am in favor of this bill. I think we need to make substantial changes to how colleges and universities are funded. The cost of higher education has gotten out of control, all while college degrees are becoming less valuable in the job market. The reason that we have over $1 trillion in student loan debt is because of this trend of individuals seeking overpriced college degrees, taking out excessive loans, then being unable to pay back those loans due to not finding any good paying jobs after leaving college. If this bill will help to reduce this trend, then I am all for it. Put more money into job placement and apprenticeship programs.

  2. Delece Smith-Barrow’s article on Feb 27, 2018, Divided We learn, made me realize that it’s high time Congress reallocated federal funds set aside to finance graduate and professional education to increase Pell grants and funding for community colleges and undergraduate degrees. As long graduate and professional students are allowed to borrow taxpayer money to attend any accredited institution at any price, regardless of the quality of the degree or certification, student debt and college cost will continue to increase, and student success will decrease.

    For over a decade now the federal Grad PLUS loan program has been artificially boosting demand for graduate and professional student loans, which increases the cost of college. Coupling this loan program with generous loan forgiveness and multiple repayment plans has encouraged student over-borrowing and frees schools from their responsibly to charge prices reflecting market value. The irony of this loan program is that the federal government charges borrowers more relative to the risks that they pose and also exposes unacceptable losses to taxpayers due to the costs of loan forgiveness, multiple repayment plan options and other policies originally intended to serve needy undergraduate students. Moreover, graduate students typically are not the students who are struggling to pay back their loans. The imperfections in the graduate and professional student loan market that would constitute the only legitimate reason why the federal government should be involved in this market do not exist.

    By eliminating federal student loans for all but the neediest of economically disadvantaged graduate and professional students who lack the credit to qualify for private-sector loans, Congress can: (1) provide more funding for education at community colleges and undergraduate study at colleges and universities; (2) help bring down college costs; (3) incentivize schools to price graduate and professional programs according to their market value; (4) enable graduate and professional students to better assess the market value of their chosen programs before attending school; (5) restore greater private sector participation and innovation in graduate education finance; and (6) reinforce the impetus for the creation of the Higher Education Act — the value for society in ensuring that access to higher education not be limited to those with wealth and the ability to access private credit.

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