The College for All Act: a necessary action for a pervasive problem in higher education— one the Dept. of Education isn’t inclined to solve under Trump

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaking at the press conference in the Dirksen Senate Office building announcing the College for All Act on Monday, April 3, 2017 in Washington D.C. CREDIT: Christian L. Smith

“This is not a radical idea…we have done this before”

This is a favorite line of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT). The Vermont Senator applies this argument to the policy proposals that have made him an icon of the progressive movement, and it serves as a reminder of how much the United States has divested from its citizens on many levels.

On April 3, 2017, Sen. Sanders and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) used that same argument to make the case for their College for All Act — an initiative to make public colleges and universities tuition-free for those students of families earning below $125,000. Other goals of the bill are to cut federal student loan interest rates “in half”, allow existing borrowers to refinance their loans at a lower interest rate, invest in college prep programs, and reduce tuition and fees at private and minority-serving institutions.

You can read the full intent of the bill here.

Sanders and Jayapal were accompanied by some of the bill’s sponsors from both the House and Senate, such as Representatives Keith Ellison (D-MN) and Rick Nolan (D-MN), and Senators Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT). The room was packed with members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the United States Student Association, and of Generation Progress and its Higher Ed, Not Debt campaign, to name a few of the bill’s supporters. Between the organizations, there were many college students and young professionals who attended the press conference after spending the day on Capitol Hill meeting members of Congress. One common issue between them: student debt. I imagine that the cheers coming from the room as Sanders, Jayapal and the others made the arguments for tuition-free college came from a position of vested interest — and hope.

Sanders asserted that in the 1960’s, average college tuition was $256, and that public state schools like those of City University of New York and the University of California system provided a tuition-free education. “If we could do it in the ‘60’s, we can do it now.”

Personally, I am managing my debt payments alongside housing and food costs on the month-to-month. I work in higher education and immigration rights advocacy. I did not “waste” my money on a college education; I am doing exactly what I wanted to do after college, and I didn’t’ go into that line of work for the money. However, I would also like to go to law school and advance my professional career alongside my earning-potential. I want to reach full financial security one day. For as much scholarship as I can hope for, my apprehension is with the debt-burden that comes with that pursuit through the holistic costs involved with higher education.

While I face these apprehensions post-bachelor’s, one must be sympathetic to this feeling among those who hesitate going to college after high school, or going to college as non-traditional students out of necessity for better employment. Post-secondary education is pushed as an expectation due to its necessity in a 21st century economy, and because of this, student debt is an issue that affects far too many.

The large student debt that exists in this country is a cumulative result of high student loan interest rates, lack of or under-employment, predatory lending practices, and decreased financial aid. All of these factors accompanied by rising tuition costs and continued federal and state divestment in higher education systems are several factors external to universities needing to control costs. Consequently, the cost of getting a degree remains the pervasive issue that needs to be addressed. Worse still, food and housing are such large parts of the cost of attending college that regular financial aid, by itself, can be strained to cover these atop tuition.

Student debt is a $1.4 trillion financial crisis due to its effect on consumers and markets, individuals and families, and the quality of life for the great many borrowers in the country. Loan default, bad credit from irregular or insufficient repayment, the financial insecurity of having to afford the loans and their interest atop other costs of living are all pitfalls that come with taking out student loans. The repayment of debt accrued after college can restrain the affordability of other life expenses — such as housing, raising and educating children, and healthcare, to name a few examples. With more education debt accumulating and individuals becoming less able to pay it, student loan debt is poised to be the source of a financial crash like that of the mortgage crises — a crash that many higher ed advocates have been working for years to avoid.

There are arguments that post-secondary education is a luxury enterprise meant only for those who can pay for it — a privilege for those supported by families’ means or by scholarship support for those with less means but greater ability. This camp treats the barriers of entry to college as being more about ability in academics and will to overcome, rather than the education costs that price many out of college or force debt upon them to be at-par with those who have means.

To the contrary: higher education is such a necessity on all levels of our economy and society that it must be treated like a public good, and the national student debt a crisis. To dismiss the rising costs of tuition and fees across the nation imperils generations of students from all backgrounds — especially those of low-income and/or traditionally marginalized communities. Indeed, there is a reason why so much investment is made in preparing students for college and pressing them to aspire to complete some form of post-secondary education. Degree holders have higher median earnings compared to those without a form of post-secondary education. This allows those with a degree to advance their economic standing, financial stability, and ability to build wealth over generations. Providing affordable and accessible education is as much as public good as it is an economic necessity. However, these benefits to individuals and the economy are marginalized as student debt numbers grow, and the debt incurred by communities with less means yet who need an education to advance, is especially problematic. Education is the key to building the American economy, but too often crushing student debt prevents people on the verge of their careers from achieving their potential with equal opportunity to those with the means to afford college more ably.

In an economy where the need for technical and advanced skills are already a necessity for acquiring the kind of jobs that build a Middle Class, higher education costs and the building debt need to be reined-in, and the system of higher education reformed comprehensively. Among several initiatives in the past, higher ed advocates have worked to have options provided by the Department of Education to help borrowers manage their federal loans, such as income-driven debt repayment plans. They have also helped to establish now-endangered protections against abuse and excessive fees by lending companies so borrowers don’t incur even more education debt. However, students, borrowers, and the parents of college students must ask for more in order to tackle the fundamental problem with acquiring a degree: the cost.

For its potential to address the larger student debt issue and provide young adults like myself with a hope of either initiating or continuing their post-secondary education, I want the Congress to work towards the vision of the College for All Act.

The situation isn’t favorable for such a measure, despite its popularity, however. In the current education policy regime under Trump Administration and Education Sec. Betsy DeVos, we can expect a deregulatory and pro-privatization zeal being par for the course for how they will attempt to solve student debt. From them, it is unlikely that students and borrowers can expect anything in spirit of education being a public good, as opposed to the dogmatic and asinine endeavor of implementing “free market solutions” to college affordability and student debt. Sec. DeVos has already stated her doubts, on public record, about the concept of free college — half-sympathetic concerns coming from one who, herself, has been “fortunate enough” never to have had to take out student loans for herself or her children, and who all have exclusively attended private parochial schools

In addition to DeVos herself being ill-equipped experientially and philosophically to address college costs and student debt, the Trump Administration’s proposed budget for the Department of Education intends to cut and eliminate several grant programs and college prep courses. And in addition to this, the Administration already wishes to deregulate the often-predacious for-profit college industry, privatize lending for student loans to the banks, and potentially eliminating the Public Service loan forgiveness program. The priority isn’t reform of the college cost structure and providing more cost-reduction and support for those managing their debt.

Therefore, we need to look at the College for All Act, at the least, as a step in the right direction towards addressing the root issue of student debt and prioritizing the welfare of potential and current students, and the graduates contending with their debts.

Supporting efforts like these takes us in a better direction — a holistic effort at reform for education costs and protection for student borrowers — where the current federal political climate does not seem inclined to support students’ best financial interests. We need to support and uplift this bill, and efforts like it, and make student debt and college affordability a priority for our representative government before they are pushed aside in cynical politics.

As the SEIU stated in its support for the College for All Act, “instead of cutting Pell Grants, unleashing debt collectors, dismantling public education, and forcing faculty to rely on public assistance, it’s time for a plan that offers students, faculty, borrowers, and families the support they need.”

Debates on “access” versus “affordability” are part of the current discourse concerning both American healthcare and American higher education. What good is access to an either if so many people cannot afford it? In the case of higher education, there is less risk involved for those with the means to afford rising tuition costs. But for those who pursue their degrees and are determined not to let costs stand in the way of their educational and professional enrichment, they risk so much more in their future financial security. So much so that “access” becomes a seat at a table where one cannot afford much on the menu. Efforts like the College for All Act are essential for allowing more people to not be priced-out of an education, nor saddling them with large debts in their efforts to pursue their enrichment.