The great student loan pander

There’s been a lot of buzz lately about the Democrats' young voter problem. Fewer than half of 2012 Obama voters say they’ll vote Democrat in this year’s election. Right on cue, President Obama announced a bailout of certain student loan debts, and Senate Democrats are pushing legislation to allow students and recent graduates to “refinance” their student loans.

It’s a classic quid pro quo. Obama’s proposal shifts costs to taxpayers and future students so that just a few students will be let off the hook. And by “refinance,” Senate Democrats actually mean spending billions of taxpayer dollars in a thinly veiled effort to bribe my generation in exchange for votes. There is little intent—and even less legislative language—that would fix the structural problems that led to high student loans in the first place.

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This July the interest rates on student loans will likely rise from just under 4 percent to 4.66 percent. These rates will continue to grow in coming years and experts warn rates will soon hit the maximum rate cap. 

Thankfully, other politicians are trying to fix this problem with substantive, if unflashy, legislation. Look no further than Sen. Mike Lee’s (R-Utah) and Rep. Rob DeSantis’ (R-Fla.) “Higher Education Reform and Opportunity Act (HERO Act).” It addresses an issue that directly bears on the question of higher education’s high cost: accreditation.

Reforming accreditation—rather than tinkering with student loans—is critical to lowering the cost of college. Currently, colleges and universities get to decide the standards necessary for accreditation, which is directly tied to receiving federal funds. In turn, colleges have every incentive to protect the status quo at all costs – stifling innovation in higher education.

The result? College costs have gone up by nearly 80 percent since 2003. The average college graduate has over $35,000 in student loan debt with few options for paying all that money back.

This year, only 20 percent of graduates have a job lined up. Whether our interest rate is 2 percent or 10 percent, we can’t afford a higher education.

In fact, there’s plenty of evidence that lowering student loan interest rates will only drive up the price of our education. College costs have gone up by 500 percent since 1985. The government’s financial aid seems to be going straight into the coffers of colleges and universities.

The only way to lower costs is to let our generation dictate the future of higher education. We want an educational experience as diverse as our interests. And that might not mean attending a traditional college. We may want to take some courses online from a famous professor while taking other, more practical classes at the local community college. We may choose to study abroad for a semester or serve a year-long apprenticeship that includes on-the-job training.

But a funny thing has happened in higher education. Colleges and universities, through the accreditation process, are given the authority to develop “quality standards” and define what higher education should be for themselves and their peers. Politicians, both at the state and local level, have tied federal funds and financial aid to these standards. The inmates are running the asylum, and the last thing they want is to allow new competitors or the next generation to rethink higher education. Plus, the educational choices we would make for ourselves could be obtained for a fraction of the cost.

Unfortunately, greedy politicians are all-too willing to support the status quo – they collected $64 million in campaign contributions in 2012 from political action committees and individuals associated with colleges and universities who spend around $100 million annually in lobbying.

In contrast, Sen. Lee and Rep. DeSantis are trying to buck this trend by reforming the accreditation process. The HERO Act would allow all 50 states to develop their own competing accreditation for institutions, curricula, apprenticeships, programs, or even individual courses. The floodgates would be open to new approaches to providing a better education at a lower price.

Young Americans are clamoring for solutions like this to the education crisis. If there’s one thing certain about our generation, it’s that we like to do things in new ways. We aren’t satisfied with the status quo. We’re creative, forward-thinking, and destructive toward current practices and refuse to go along with antiquated models of higher education that saddle our generation with massive costs and few skills we can utilize in the marketplace.

But the president and his party are welcome to keep pandering. Young Americans are going to continue to abandon politicians that make empty promises to buy our votes rather than address the issues facing our generation – both this November and beyond. 

Feinberg is the president of Generation Opportunity, a youth advocacy organization.

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