And for good reason: According to the National College Attainment Network, only 23 percent of public four-year institutions and 41 percent of public two-year institutions were affordable for the average Pell Grant recipient, as of the 2018-19 academic year. As one interviewee in my study observed, the escalating cost of college and the huge amount of student-loan debt is likely to “have a lasting impact on people’s beliefs around higher education, and especially for middle- and lower-income families.” The result: Higher ed is becoming “an unattainable goal.”
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And for good reason: According to the National College Attainment Network, only 23 percent of public four-year institutions and 41 percent of public two-year institutions were affordable for the average Pell Grant recipient, as of the 2018-19 academic year. As one interviewee in my study observed, the escalating cost of college and the huge amount of student-loan debt are likely to “have a lasting impact on people’s beliefs around higher education, and especially for middle- and lower-income families.” The result: Higher ed is becoming “an unattainable goal.”
The federal government has historically played a large role in helping students afford college. With the current amount of federal student-loan debt topping $1.6 trillion, it seems like a moment for a policy intervention. President Biden’s student-loan-forgiveness plan, which will discharge as much as $20,000 for federal borrowers who receive Pell Grants (and as much as $10,000 for other federal borrowers), will reduce that amount by billions and make a substantial difference in the lives of a large number of borrowers.
But a one-time debt-forgiveness policy does not in itself reduce the price of college. While both Democratic and Republican policy makers want college to be affordable, the policies they support are quite different. While many Democrats support Biden’s loan-forgiveness plan, Republicans oppose it, and some have sought to block it.
The race to be the next senator from North Carolina illustrates these differences. Cheri Beasley, a Democrat, supports Biden’s plan, while Ted Budd, a Republican, opposes it, saying it would lead to greater inflation. And while both candidates support expanding the Pell Grant, Beasley wants such expansion to decrease the need for student loans, while Budd supports the expansion of Pell Grants for apprenticeship and vocational programs.
This year’s congressional elections will clarify where affordability policy is headed — even though no matter who wins, major affordability legislation is unlikely. Theoretically, party control of Congress could have a substantial impact. The most recent major Republican and Democratic bills to reauthorize the Higher Education Act (the Prosper Act and the College Affordability Act, respectively) contained quite different visions. The Republicans’ bill would have eliminated subsidized federal student loans and the Supplemental Education Opportunity Grant. The Democrats’ bill proposed increasing the total maximum Pell Grant and expanding Public Service Loan Forgiveness eligibility.
But again, major higher-ed legislation is unlikely in the near future. A recent study of mine found that heightened party polarization and the Senate’s filibuster rule have stymied the serious consideration of bills to reauthorize the Higher Education Act, the law under which Title IV (which governs federal student financial-aid programs) resides.
Since the HEA was last reauthorized in 2008, higher ed has become more polarizing, and today Title IX, accountability for the for-profit sector, tuition-free college, and student-loan debt forgiveness place Democrats and Republicans squarely on opposing sides. There’s simply not enough bipartisan agreement on these issues. Policy ideas around affordability — such as doubling the Pell Grant, student-loan forgiveness, and state-federal partnerships to keep public institutions’ tuition low — lack the bipartisan support needed to survive a filibuster, and neither party is likely to hold a filibusterproof majority in 2023.
An HEA reauthorization bill would be too comprehensive to be likely to gain widespread support. The more provisions a higher-ed bill contains, the more likely it is to include something that key legislators or interest groups will oppose. (Just a few years ago, the prospect of Title IX policy being included in an HEA bill hindered serious discussions of a comprehensive reauthorization.) And again, a reauthorization bill would need the support of at least 60 senators under the Senate’s filibuster rules.
Another reason the midterms are unlikely to result in a major higher-ed policy change is because — to borrow a phrase from the political scientists Amy Gutmann and Dennis Thompson — Congress members are now engaged in a “permanent campaign.” They constantly think about, campaign for, and raise money for the next election. In a hyperpartisan environment like ours, politicians are rewarded for not compromising. And, as a result, we wind up with policy makers who are less likely to reach bipartisan compromise on legislation.
Some higher-ed finance policy can be made in a budget reconciliation, which needs only a simple majority vote to pass Congress. Not every policy can be part of a reconciliation bill — matters that are “extraneous” to the federal budget are generally not allowed — but since student financial aid and other affordability policies are often related to the federal budget, the majority party will have an easier time getting those policies passed. And policies enacted in this manner can be significant: The Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which began the phase out of private lenders in federal student-loan programs, was enacted via reconciliation in 2010.
Another critical result of the midterm elections will be chamber and committee leadership in Congress. Chamber leaders and committee leaders (such as the chairs of the Senate’s Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee and the House’s Education and Labor Committee) are instrumental in deciding which bills move forward, so enterprising legislators and interest groups may seek to sweeten a bill they favor by including a policy priority of a key congressional leader. The Democrats and Republicans who could hold leadership positions are likely to advance very different kinds of higher-ed legislation, depending on party control.
The current chair of the Senate HELP Committee is Patty Murray, Democrat of Washington state, who has supported doubling the Pell Grant and state-federal partnerships to lower the price of public higher education. Murray is up for re-election this year, and she is favored to win, but if she were to leave the committee after this term, Bernie Sanders, who supports tuition-free college and student-debt-cancellation policies, would be the most senior HELP Committee member on the Democratic side.
On the Republican side, the current ranking member, Richard Burr of North Carolina, will retire after this term, leaving Rand Paul of Kentucky as the most senior HELP Committee member in the party. Paul supports tax deductions for tuition and allowing those paying college tuition or student loans to do so by drawing from their retirement savings. Should Paul decide to chair a different committee, the next most-senior Republican on HELP is Susan Collins of Maine, who has sponsored bipartisan legislation to make college more affordable through a state-federal partnership.
Moreover, although it is difficult to find policies on which both major parties can agree, it is not impossible. There has been bipartisan support for fixing student-loan interest rates to Treasury-note rates, providing Pell Grant eligibility to incarcerated students, and protections and benefits for student veterans. Bills around these issues have a chance of success in Congress.
Finally, a crisis can upend the congressional calculus. This happened during the 2020 Covid-19 crisis, with Congress providing colleges and students with emergency financial relief through the Cares Act. Urgency is a factor in favor of moving legislation forward. As one of my study’s interviewees said regarding the Cares Act, “In crises like this,” the two parties “are really forced to have to work together.”
Advocacy could also disrupt the status quo. Federal higher-ed finance policy has shown time and again that advocacy works, from the 1990s when higher-ed associations successfully lobbied against cuts in student financial aid, to a more recent success by advocates for HBCUs in pushing for permanent funding by passing the Future Act. Can advocates and voters create a sense of urgency in Congress around college affordability? Only time, and the counting of ballots, will tell.