Senator Marco Rubio (R – Fla.) has often said publicly that he personally still owed more than $100,000 in student loans when he joined the U.S. Senate in 2011. He only paid off his nearly $150,000 in debt after law school with the proceeds of his autobiography in December of 2012. Rubio and fellow senator (and law school graduate) Mike Lee (R – Utah) are young enough to be personally aware of the miasma surrounding higher ed — and especially higher ed funding — in the United States. It makes sense that they would lead the way toward reform. Apparently, they are.
In the past few days, the lawmakers have been popping up in public, touting efforts to reform higher education. Let’s take a look at the reforms they suggest….
Mike Lee spoke this week at the Heritage Action Conservative Policy Summit, pushing his proposed Higher Education Reform and Opportunity (HERO) Act. The HERO Act would authorize states to “create an alternative, state-run process for accreditation, providing the state with the same authority as the Secretary of Education has in selecting the institutions eligible to participate in Title IV funding.” Senator Lee aims to open up eligibility for federal student loan funding to a variety of alternative education programs such as vocational schools, online programs, certification and competency tests, even apprenticeships.
Lee argues that current funding and accreditation standards insulate institutions from competition and make the federal government a gatekeeper to higher education. He doesn’t, however, plan to abolish regional accreditation bodies, simply to let states permit alternatives. “College presidents can rest assured that if they like their regional accreditor, they can keep their regional accreditor,” he promised.
Not to be outdone, Marco Rubio has also been working the press junket lately, promoting his panoply of higher ed reforms. Rubio has criticized rising tuition rates, advocated the expansion of income-based repayment programs for federal student loans, and suggested innovative “student investment plans.” The plans would allow private investment firms to pay for a student’s tuition in exchange for the student’s promise to repay the debt later. The student would repay the debt as a fixed percentage of her income for a set number of years after graduation, regardless of whether those payments would cover the original debt amount.
Rubio and fellow senator Ron Wyden (D – Or.) also recently published an op-ed piece in Inside Higher Ed titled “Reform Starts with Good Data.” In it, they begin with the premise that “any policy debate should start with a clear picture of how the dollars are being spent and whether that money is achieving the desired outcomes. Unfortunately, a lack of accurate data makes it impossible to answer many of the most basic questions for students, families and policy makers who are investing significant time and money in higher education.” In an effort to obtain that good data, Senators Rubio and Wyden double-down on their earlier proposal from 2013: the Student Right to Know Before You Go Act.
The Student Right to Know Before You Go Act would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 to require “the complete range of comparative data on colleges and universities easily accessible to the public online and free of charge by linking student-level academic data with employment and earnings data.” They want colleges and universities to report details on how their students perform — not only institutionally, but down to the program of study. The senators want to know graduation and transfer rates, student debt loads, and post-graduation employment outcomes. Basically, the Act would create a resource for consumers of higher education to make more informed choices about where and how to spend their dollars before, as the name suggests, they go to a college or university. Currently, no such comprehensive resource exists.
Senator Rubio’s proposal is a move toward transparency, an attitude that should be near to the hearts of many law students and recent law school graduates. Accurate and comprehensive data collection is a necessary first step in the path to transparency. Accountability can’t come without transparency. And meaningful institutional reform can’t come without accountability.
Granted, Rubio’s proposed database raises some concerns. The bill stipulates that the system created will protect student privacy. Nevertheless, the prospect of mandatory, universal collection of student-level data can make privacy advocates rather queasy. How comfortable are you with a single government database tracking personal details about you from undergrad applications to income and job statistics years after graduation?
Also, fans of minimal government might note — and object — that Rubio’s proposal would create yet-another hulking federal bureaucracy. Administering a project of this scope might involve an employee or two.
Mike Lee’s proposal is also imperfect. It would open up the possibility of choosing lower-cost, more practical, job-oriented education and certification programs for many Americans. It might also, though, open up the possibility of crippling student debt to new segments of the population. Yes, you could now take out federal loans to pay for a C++ certification course instead of taking out larger loans to pay for a four-year degree in computer science. But either way, an unemployed programmer is still facing a debt she can’t service.
Whether perfect solutions or not, these reform proposals by Senators Rubio and Lee are a step in the right direction. Whether these particular reforms become law or not, a sea change is sweeping toward higher education. Perhaps nobody appreciates the need for change as well as someone who has been to law school.
Tamara Tabo is a summa cum laude graduate of the Thurgood Marshall School of Law at Texas Southern University, where she served as Editor-in-Chief of the school’s law review. After graduation, she clerked on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. She will be working at the Center for Legal Pedagogy at Texas Southern University during the 2013-2014 academic year. She looks forward to a career of teaching and writing about, but never practicing, law. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org