Let’s say right up front that the White House plan to relieve student loan debt is not perfect.
For one thing, the plan will almost certainly help people who don’t really need help, and it obviously won’t help those hard-working Americans who never went to college but still find themselves struggling to climb out from under other types of debt. And the plan does nothing to address the rising cost of a college degree. Some critics suggest it might even encourage colleges and universities to keep boosting tuition costs on the theory that more such debt relief might be in the offing.
This problem of rising college costs goes beyond the issue of student debt. It might also be contributing to declining enrollments.
According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, enrollment at the nation’s colleges and universities has declined by 7.4%, or nearly 1.3 million students, in the past two years. Still, it’s worth remembering that the president’s plan is meant to address a very real crisis in need of a solution. Even one that won’t last.
We’ve all heard older Americans complaining that this new generation just needs to suck it up. Grandpa paid off his loans. These kids can pay off theirs.
These ain’t your grandpa’s student loans, folks. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of tuition and fees in 1970 was $394. Fifty years later, that amount had risen to $10,560, an increase of 2,580%. That’s more than four times the rate of inflation. Analysts say close to three quarters of those who will benefit from the president’s plan will be from middle- and low-income families.
These folks might have attended a few semesters at a public college or for-profit vocational program and failed to graduate. They might have suffered because of funding cuts at community colleges or because of the government’s failure to regulate for-profit programs.
And just for the record, this plan has public support. Data for Progress, a left-leaning think tank, took a poll in mid-August that found 60% of American voters support eliminating some or all federal student debt. That number includes 81% of Democrats, 52% of independents and 45% of Republicans.
How much the plan will cost is an issue of some debate. The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget puts the cost between $440 billion and $600 billion. The University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Wharton Budget Model puts it at $605 billion. There might be more effective ways to spend the billions of dollars this program will cost. The federal government could sharply increase Pell Grants for low-income students. It could fund apprenticeship and training programs for fields with a shortage of qualified workers. It could offer free community college and increase its support to public colleges and universities.
It could make further improvements to loan repayment plans based on income. But all of those efforts require the support of Congress, and at least right now, the administration doesn’t have the votes.
This plan is without doubt a short-term solution to a long-term problem. Congress must find the resolve to do more. It simply must.
This editorial was originally published in the Herald Bulletin, a sister paper of the Weatherford Democrat.