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Students drowning in debt bewildered by claims college is a 'hammock'

Students drowning in debt bewildered by claims college is a 'hammock'
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Last week, House Education and Workforce Committee Chairwoman Virginia FoxxVirginia Ann FoxxA 2 billion challenge: Transforming US grant reporting Trump calls North Carolina redistricting ruling ‘unfair’ Women poised to take charge in Dem majority MORE (R-N.C.), co-authored an op-ed for the Washington Times in which she called the Higher Education Act and our student aid system a “luxurious hammock in which students can repose.” As an organization that works with students all across the country, we were deeply disturbed to read this.

For many students today, entering our higher education system feels more like being given a leaky boat, a broken paddle, and then being put on a river with a very strong current. And we know that so many students jump right in to that river and swim against the current if they have to, because they know higher education means the difference between their dreams – a better life for themselves and their children — and being stuck with few job prospects and little to call their own. Students today are being asked to do more with far less. More than a quarter of students are also parents, the vast majority work while they go to school, and more than 40 percent of first-year students are living at or near the poverty line. Simply put, Chairwoman Foxx’s statement is incredibly out of touch with today’s students.

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In particular, Rep. Foxx and her co-author,  Ed Feulner, founder of The Heritage Foundation, point to a few areas of higher education policy that she believes are setting up students “to repose in hammocks” and schools to “feed from the trough.” They mention “growing evidence that generous federal subsidies have driven tuition increases.” There is in fact little conclusive evidence for this argument, per numerous studies. For example, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service (CRS) stated in 2014 that “the body of research on the relationship between federal financial aid and college prices does not provide conclusive results in any direction.” It also notes that data on this topic, even within the same report, can come to contradictory conclusions.

It is concerning that this argument would detract from the real issue at hand: state disinvestment in higher education. In fact, year after year we’ve worked with students in Illinois who have had their state’s need-based financial aid program (MAP) slashed due to years of budget instability. They have regularly wondered if they’ll even be able to finish their education with such uncertainty surrounding their aid. Across the country, states have cut per student spending by 21 percent between fiscal years 2008 through 2014. And knowing that, it should come as no surprise that consequently tuition is up 28 percent since 2008 — that’s over twice the rate of inflation. The federal government must do more to incentivize states to reinvest, not cut off student aid under the false pretense it will immediately and effectively drive down tuition costs.

Foxx and Feulner also mention the federal Pell Grant program as part of the “trough from which universities feed.” In fact, Pell Grants are helping nearly 8 million low- and moderate-income students pursue higher education and a better future. These grants are one of the most powerful ways to address inequality in our higher education system. But the Pell Grant simply isn’t doing as much as it used to — something reform of the Higher Education Act must address and we’re urging lawmakers to make a priority. As of 2016, the Pell Grant covers less than 30 percent of the cost of four-year public college. Just three decades ago, it covered over 50 percent of the same cost.

So if the Pell Grant is now only going an inch, what is needed to go the many more miles necessary to allow low-income students to pay for school? Loans.

One student we worked with this summer, Darius, a first-generation student who will be graduating from University of Memphis this May, said that without a Pell Grant school “wouldn’t have been an option” for him. But even with that Pell Grant, Darius had to take out over $22,000 in student loans. He is not alone. A student loan borrower walks off campus with, on average, more than $30,000 in debt. So it is hard to understand how “dramatically curtailing the federal student loans,” as Foxx and Feulner have proposed, is going to open up access for more people to go to school, not less.

Darius said he might want to be an attorney or a lawmaker himself. Under Foxx’s Higher Education Act reform plan, if Darius does decide to pursue his interest in working in government and being a public servant, that $22,000 in loans, and any loans he might take on for a graduate degree, will be with him for a very, very long time. The House Republican higher education proposal has proposed eliminating all loan forgiveness. The Public Service Loan Forgiveness program is many students’ only chance at pursuing a career in public service, a choice that shouldn’t be reserved for only those lucky enough not to have to take on debt. And for many low-income borrowers, the elimination of forgiveness provisions after 20 or 25 years of payments could mean taking their debt to the grave.

So for all the students like Darius, who work hard, and do everything possible to get to and through school, they may be confused about how our current higher education system has given them a “hammock.” Any sense of support and security that a “hammock” might provide can come from policy changes like boosting Pell Grants, making loan repayment easier, and incentivizing states to reinvest in their higher education systems at greater levels to relieve the burden that has shifted so drastically onto the backs of students and families.

That might feel like a small step toward the ability to repose. But for now, trust us, students aren’t lounging.

Rachel Fleischer is the new executive director of Young Invincibles, a research and advocacy organization working to expand economic opportunity for young adults.