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Elizabeth Warren on college costs
From left, Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisc., Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., talk during the press conference in the Capitol to call for the elimination of student loan debt at public higher education institutions on Wednesday, June 10, 2015. Reproduction is not permitted. Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

In an admission seldom heard in Washington, U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren said Republicans and Democrats are both right about solving the problem of escalating college costs.

Republicans are right that colleges need to be held more accountable when it comes to how they’re spending taxpayer money, said Warren. And Democrats are right that higher education institutions and their students should be getting more of it, in the form of larger individual Pell grants and restored state funding.

For their part, the blunt-spoken Warren told a conference in Washington Wednesday, colleges and universities have been largely deaf to criticisms of their costs and operation, and have continued to spend, secure in the knowledge that students, their families, and the federal government will continue to pay. And that needs to stop, she said.

“Instead of responding to cuts in state funding, instead of running leaner programs, colleges have been relying on guaranteed federal loan and grant dollars to make up the difference,” Warren, a Democrat from Massachusetts, said at the event, organized by the Shanker Institute, a left-leaning advocacy group, and the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers union, to consider ways of making college more affordable.

The anger-inducing idea that campus luxuries designed to lure top students drives up costs is not new, but it’s seldom been so high profile.

Public universities in particular are inexplicably vying to keep up with privates in the amenities game, said Zakiya Smith, strategy director of the Lumina Foundation. (Lumina is among the funders of the Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

“In most cases, you see those climbing walls and lazy rivers at private colleges,” Smith said. “Where they are at public colleges, they should be ashamed of themselves for trying to compete with these private schools with huge endowments.”

Panelists conceded that fancy facilities can explain only so much of America’s $1.3 trillion in student loan debt.

Warren called on the federal government to, among other things, simplify the federal financial aid application, increase the maximum amount of Pell grants for low-income students, and let those students tap Pell money to pay for courses in the summer, which they’re not currently allowed to do.

She also repeated calls for the federal government to stop setting interest rates so high that the government profits from providing student loans, a claim that has been contested.

Warren said states need to stop cutting higher education spending and institute student loan refinancing programs, as North Dakota has.

The senator also called for incentives to entice colleges to be more financially accountable for growing student debt. She suggested institutions should be responsible for at least some of the debt students rack up and are unable to repay, and rewarded with some of the money the government saves when students complete their degrees on time.

Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of educational policy studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said there was also a need to address the divide between higher- and lower-income students.

Lower-income students who drop out and never graduate end up with debt averaging $9,000, Goldrick-Rab said.

“These students are struggling to repay what we consider tiny amounts,” she said. “Refinancing doesn’t help them. That’s the real college debt problem.”

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