Politics & Policy

The College Try

( Denisismagilov/Dreamstime)

It’s no secret that people have grown increasingly worried about the American Dream. Americans believe that they have to work harder than ever to stay in the middle class, and that their children can fall out of it more easily than ever. Their confidence that the next generation will have better lives than they do has declined.

These concerns are deeply bound up with higher education. Many Americans have grown convinced — not least because everyone in public life tells them so — that young people have to go to college to have a chance at a good life. But they do not know if they will be able to afford to give them that chance. College keeps growing more expensive; graduation rates are not improving, so that many people who go to college incur debt without getting degrees; and even many graduates leave school without the skills necessary for success. A 2013 Heartland Monitor poll about middle-class anxieties found that people placed a higher priority on addressing the affordability of higher education than on health care, retirement security, or fixing problems in the housing market.

Democrats seek to respond to the public’s concerns with more of the policies that have contributed to them.

Many of these public concerns are the direct result of misguided federal policies — policies that have long enjoyed bipartisan support but reflect liberal assumptions. Our prevailing policies have showered institutions of higher education with taxpayer money and other subsidies, and required of them little except conformity to a standard model of what higher education should look like. Democrats seek to respond to the public’s concerns with more of the policies that have contributed to them. They offer further federal dollars tied to new regulations that will standardize higher education even more — without reducing its cost, since the more tuition is subsidized, the more colleges increase it.

So the public is upset, and liberalism has contributed to the problem but offers no real solutions. Remarkably, this situation has not led Republicans to say much about the subject. Look at the presidential candidates’ websites. There’s nothing about higher education on Senator Cruz’s website; Governor Kasich has a few lines touting his record in Ohio without suggesting any changes to federal policy. Congressional Republicans aren’t much better.

#share#Three candidates therefore deserve credit for suggesting conservative reforms to federal higher-education policy: Marco Rubio, Jeb Bush, and, to a lesser extent, Chris Christie. Their ideas, which overlap, would not eliminate federal involvement in higher education (which would be a political non-starter), but they would reduce and simplify that involvement, increase options for students and their parents, and curb the worst effects of federal policy.

Senator Rubio has sponsored legislation to clarify and solidify the legal status of contracts whereby investors can finance a student’s higher education in return for a share of that student’s future income. (Christie is for this idea as well.) Rubio has also worked to let prospective students and their parents know the economic outcomes of students in particular academic programs at particular institutions. (The federal government should not be in the business of telling people whether they should be welders or philosophers, but it ought to let people gain a sense of how a university’s philosophy majors are faring.) And he has sought, with Senator Mike Lee, to break the federal stranglehold on accreditation so that new and different institutions can bloom. He would simplify federal financial-aid application as well.

Governor Bush has just proposed ambitious higher-education reforms of his own. He would get rid of many federal loan programs and higher-education tax credits and eliminate the federal financial-aid application. Instead, he would let students draw on a line of federal credit and pay back the debt they incur based on their income. They would not face a debt trap of accumulating interest; the amount they would have to repay would be more predictable than under the current system; and this financing arrangement would do much less than today’s to foster tuition inflation. Today’s federal Plus loans, for example, set no borrowing limit; Bush would eliminate the program.

Because students could use this money at a wide array of institutions, in practice this reform would have the same cartel-busting effects as Rubio’s accreditation proposal. Bush would also make universities share the losses when students default on their debts, giving them an incentive to make sure they are doing an adequate job of preparing them for their futures.

#related#His plan is designed to cost the federal government no more money than it already spends. Education experts who support the plan estimate that, combined with the reforms in K–12 education that Bush envisions, it would allow the Department of Education to shed half its workforce. That’s a better idea than proposals to “close the Department of Education” that really just assign its existing programs and bureaucrats to other parts of the federal government.

The individual ideas both men have advanced are good, as is their willingness to think creatively about an issue that conservatives have for too long ignored. Of all the candidates, Bush is boldest in rethinking the federal role in higher education. Rubio’s agenda would leave more existing policies in place, but might prove for that reason easier to implement.

Bush and Rubio have taken up an important challenge. Higher education has a more than merely instrumental, economic purpose. But the federal government has done a lot to shape higher education in America, all in the name of promoting economic opportunity. Bush and Rubio want to make sure that the government will actually accomplish this goal, and other Republicans should follow their lead.

The Editors comprise the senior editorial staff of the National Review magazine and website.

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