Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) on Monday unveiled a series of education reform proposals that could become part of a presidential platform in 2016.
It was Rubio’s second major policy speech of 2014, taking place a month after he laid out a conservative vision for combating poverty on the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s "war on poverty."
His most far-reaching proposal calls for private investment groups to pay for tuition in exchange for a percentage of future earnings. It would not replace federally subsidized student loans, but instead provide an alternative to students who don’t want to take on tens of thousands of dollars in debts.
Investors would consider a student’s area of study, the quality of the institution he or she attends and past academic performance before deciding whether to invest in the student.
“We must create alternatives to our current system of accessing and paying for higher education,” he said.
Rubio has tried to widen his portfolio of policy expertise since his political stock dropped among conservative activists last year because of his role in pushing for comprehensive immigration reform.
Speaking at Miami Dade College, Rubio spoke about the burden debt created in his personal life. He said he only recently paid off his student loans with the proceeds from his book, An American Son.
“The loans quickly became my single largest expense. I remember looking at the coupon book for one of them and realizing that at the pace I was paying these things, I wouldn’t pay them off until I was over 50,” he recalled.
Rubio touted his plan — co-sponsored with Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee — to give students reliable data on how much they will likely earn and how much they will owe after graduation, called the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act.
That proposal, first introduced in 2012, would create an automatic repayment system for student loans, which would allow graduates to make payments in proportion to their earnings. Monthly payments would be based on monthly income.
“We have various Income-Based Repayment programs already in place, but they are terribly insufficient and replete with unintended consequences,” he said. “Many graduates don’t even know the programs exist, making them extremely underutilized.”
Rubio’s speech is part of a broader GOP counteroffensive to blunt the Democrats’ primary 2014 campaign theme of income inequality.
He and other rising conservative stars, such as House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), have begun to search for ways to promote conservative policy solutions to lower-income voters.
Cruz is a champion of giving vouchers to low-income families to give them a wider variety of school choices, and recently spoke with liberal Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) at a school-choice rally in Houston.
Cantor has proposed directing more federal money to schools that attract a greater number of students, especially low-income students, who would receive a heavier weight in the formula.
Rubio on Monday used some of the same framing President Obama and other Democrats have used to push their policy agenda.
"Those with the right advanced education are making more than ever. But those that do not are falling farther and farther behind,” he said.
“The result is a growing opportunity gap between haves and have-nots, those who have advanced education and those who do not. And if we do not reverse that trend, we will lose the upward mobility that made America exceptional."
—This story was first posted at 11:38 a.m. and has been updated.