On Monday, Hillary Clinton rolled out her proposal to make college more affordable, which aims to allow students to pursue a “loan-free” education at public colleges and universities. The plan, which offers federal incentives to states which guarantee their students a debt-free education, is hideously complex. It also does not address the central problems in America’s higher-education system.
In contrast, Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican presidential candidate from Florida, has sponsored a number of bills that would enable students to take advantage of Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs), publicize information about graduation rates and potential earnings at different institutions, and make it easier for individual lenders to invest in students so that they would be able to avoid taking out college loans.
Clinton proposes to offer states $175 billion in grants in exchange for the no-loans promise. (The total cost of her plan is $350 billion.) Accepting the grants would require states to devote more of their budgets to higher education, which in theory would bring down tuition.
As I argued in a previous column for Economics21, the student loan crisis is pressing. Tuition at public four-year universities has increased 89 percent since 2000, and outstanding student loans total $1.2 trillion. A bubble in higher education spending, similar to the 2000s housing bubble, seems about to burst. Presidential candidates such as Clinton should address it.
However, Clinton cannot seem to deviate from the failed prescription of more spending, despite research showing that federal subsidies for higher education tend to increase education costs. Even if Clinton does succeed in eradicating loans for students of public colleges, her plan will not bring down the cost of higher education. Whether they are students or taxpayers, someone will end up paying those costs.
College can be a game-changer for an individual’s economic fortunes. People are willing to invest in higher education because they see an economic payoff, and society supports education through subsidized loans. But Clinton’s plan fails to address whether students are getting adequate value for their money. Colleges do not push their students towards the most promising career paths. Data from a Georgetown University report shows little correlation between the popularity of a college major and how much it pays.
Ideally, higher expected earnings would translate into more popular majors. But with little accountability for their graduates’ financial success, colleges may encourage students to choose majors like elementary education, which ranks ninth in popularity but 130th in pay after graduation ($43,000 average) among 137 college majors. Likewise, fewer students may choose majors like petroleum engineering, which ranks first in pay ($136,000) but 124th in popularity. Apparently the Law of Supply does not hold for undergraduates.
College students who might not understand the intricacies of the labor market should have help in choosing their education and career paths, rather than taking the advice of guidance counselors that college major does not matter.
Rubio introduced the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act together with his colleagues Senators Mark Warner (D-VA) and Ron Wyden (D-OR). The bill would make information about college graduation rates and potential earnings publicly available so that students can make a more informed decision about where to go to school.
Last year Rubio introduced the Investing in Student Success Act, together with Representative Tom Petri (R-WI). The bill would create a legal framework for private investors such as Upstart and Pave to finance a student’s education in exchange for an income-share agreement after graduation. Under such a system, investors would have a direct financial stake in ensuring that students go on to earn a better living, since their returns would be tied to graduates’ salaries. Investors, therefore, would guide students through important decisions such as where to go to college and what to major in. Students could benefit from investor expertise rather than fend for themselves.
Additionally, shifting to private financing of higher education would force colleges to improve, as investors steer students away from institutions with poor graduation rates or low potential earnings. With the six-year college graduation rate at 59 percent, colleges must start taking responsibility for the fate of their students.
And what about student loans? Under income-share agreements, repayments would be directly tied to students’ income, lightening the burden of college costs. Faced with tougher standards from the market, colleges also might start bringing down tuition to compete with each other for investor dollars.
For the 70 percent of students who graduate with debt, Rubio together with Senator Mark Warner (D-VA) have proposed that repayment start when the students get a job, rather than when they graduate. Their Dynamic Student Loan Repayment Act would mandate that payments begin when students get their first job and vary with income.
Some young people might be able to do without a college degree altogether and learn the required material on the Internet. MOOCs are proliferating, and courses are available at little or no charge. To help students make use of these courses, Rubio has introduced the Alternative Qualifications for Federal Employment Act, which would put in place a 5-year federal government pilot program to hire people who have not attended university but who have received their training from alternative providers. This would encourage online models of education and other nontraditional models.
America has a choice. Reforming our higher-education system to make it work for students does not require hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. The United States already spends 2.6 percent of GDP on higher education, much more than the OECD average of 1.6 percent. Clinton is setting up the college-finance debate as a question of how much we should be spending. Senator Rubio is asking how we can make what we are spending work better.
Preston Cooper is a Policy Analyst at Economics21. You can follow him on Twitter here.
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