The three Democratic candidates for president all released their plans for higher education fairly early in the campaign cycle, with Sen. Clinton, Gov. O’Malley, and Sen. Sanders’s plans all including some variation of tuition-free or debt-free public college. These plans are all likely dead on arrival in Congress due to their price tags ($350 billion for the Clinton plan) and the high probability that Republicans hold the House of Representatives through 2020, but the candidates deserve credit for making higher education a key part of their domestic policy platforms.
On the Republican side, higher education has been much less important during the campaign, with only Sen. Rubio having a framework (with a good number of components that may enjoy bipartisan support) in place for higher education before now. But Gov. Bush’s newly released proposal for education reform (as summarized in this piece written by Jason Delisle and Andrew Kelly, two informal advisors to the Bush campaign and people I greatly respect) reflects the most detailed proposal from any of the Republican candidates. (Gov. Bush’s summary on Medium is available here.) And like Rubio’s plan, there are components that will likely get bipartisan support in Congress—while other parts are likely to face opposition from within his own party. Below are the key planks of Bush’s higher education platform, along with my comments on whether they are likely to be effective and feasible.
Proposal 1: Replace the current financial aid system with education savings accounts and a line of credit. If one thing unites all presidential candidates, it’s that the Free Application for Federal Student Aid needs to be either incredibly simple or eliminated. The Bush proposal would replace the FAFSA for most students with an education savings account based on the tax code. All students would get a $50,000 line of credit (roughly the same as what independent students can borrow for a bachelor’s degree today), and low-income students would get an additional account with need-based aid based on their family’s income in high school. Adults would also qualify for grant aid, likely by filling out some new version of the FAFSA. Tax credits would also disappear in the Bush proposal, which will probably upset some people although they have not been proven to induce students to enroll in or graduate from college.
This proposal represents a modest—but likely helpful—improvement over the current system for undergraduate students. This would give students at least some additional flexibility in using their financial aid, with the potential for students to accelerate their progress by taking summer courses that would not be aid-eligible under current rules. Getting students information about their likely aid eligibility in eighth grade is a plus, as shown in my research. But I’d like to see students get money deposited in their account at a slightly earlier age to make the commitment seem more tangible.
It appears that the $50,000 line of credit will be the new lifetime limit for federal student loans. For undergraduate students, this makes a lot of sense. The typical student with debt has between $30,000 and $35,000 in debt for a bachelor’s degree, so $50,000 seems like a reasonable upper bound for most students. However, it doesn’t look like graduate students would qualify for additional credit—which could curtail enrollment in master’s degree programs or doctoral programs in less-lucrative fields. This could create an opportunity for the expanded use of income share agreements with the private sector.
Proposal 2: Impose “risk sharing” on federal student loan dollars by holding colleges responsible for a portion of loans that are not repaid. The general principal of risk sharing makes sense—if a college’s former students can’t pay the bills, then the college should be responsible for partially reimbursing taxpayers. And the idea has at least some bipartisan support, as evidenced by 2015 legislation introduced by Senators Hatch (R) and Shaheen (D). But putting together a risk sharing proposal that doesn’t punish colleges for serving at-risk students while protecting taxpayer funds is far more difficult than it would first appear. I’ve tangled with some of these issues in my prior work (see my proposed framework for a risk sharing system), and the Bush team will have to do the same if their candidate pulls off an improbable comeback.
Proposal 3: Allow new providers to receive federal financial aid dollars. Right now, students can take their federal financial aid dollars to any of the approximately 7,500 colleges and universities nationwide that are eligible for and participate in programs under Title IV of the Higher Education Act. Conservatives have frequently called for other non-college providers (such as boot camps, apprenticeship programs, and single-course providers) to be eligible for federal financial aid to promote competition and potentially place downward pressure on the price tag of traditional programs. However, making this sort of change would likely require a significant overhaul of the current accreditation system, which has been deemed a cartel by some Republicans.
Bush’s proposal echoes these calls, but also proposes that prior learning assessments qualify for federal financial aid. This would allow students to use Pell Grant or student loan dollars to pay for taking tests such as the College Level Examination Program (CLEP) that can result in college credit if a student can demonstrate subject mastery. It could also potentially be used to help pay for portfolio assessments of previous academic or work experience, which can cost hundreds of dollars at some colleges. Even if the entire accreditation system isn’t blown to smithereens, a relatively modest change of allowing vetted prior learning assessment providers to accept federal aid would benefit students.
Proposal 4: Get outcome data into the hands of students and families. Florida has one of the most comprehensive education data systems in the country, allowing students and their families to access detailed data on earnings by field of study. The Bush proposal calls for each state to develop a similar system in order to provide outcome data to the public. However, given the way the pendulum has swung regarding student privacy (a substantial part of both the GOP and Democratic primary bases), it will be difficult to include incentives or sanctions that would encourage states to develop these databases. But even if such a proposal were to be adopted, it’s far from clear whether 50 separate databases would make more sense from a logistical or privacy perspective than a federal College Scorecard with program-level data.
Proposal 5: Reform the student loan repayment system. Both Republicans and Democrats seem to be moving toward a consensus that income-based repayment models (where loan payments are tied to a former student’s income and debt burden) are superior to the traditional 10-year fixed payment plan. Bush’s plan would make income-based repayment the only option for new borrowers, with payments equal to 1% of income per each $10,000 borrowed for up to 25 years, with the maximum lifetime payment being $17,500 per $10,000 borrowed. His proposal would also encourage current borrowers to shift into income-based repayment, which is currently a headache for many students. Although people will likely disagree with the exact terms Bush’s proposal sets forth, the general principles match up with conservative proposals as well as President Obama’s REPAYE program.
Although Gov. Bush is badly lagging in the polls, his campaign’s higher education proposals are serious, generally well-considered (although lacking for most details), and represent an important starting point for federal higher education policy discussions. Given that large infusions of federal funds into higher education are unlikely regardless of who becomes the next President, some pieces in the Bush plan (such as increased flexibility in how students use Pell Grants) are worth considering as low-cost plans that have the potential to positively impact students. Other ideas (such as risk sharing) sound promising in principle, but have the potential to do harm if they are improperly implemented. But even if the Bush campaign doesn’t make it past the first few primary states, many of the ideas included in the plan should be strongly considered by other candidates.