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Student loans have topped $1.46 trillion, making President-elect Donald Trump’s policy on them the proverbial trillion-dollar question. In a world where college education is closely tied to socioeconomic status, ensuring adequate funds are available to meet these needs is imperative. For students that do not come from wealthy families, the cost of college can be daunting. Unfortunately, Trump policy could jeopardize access to higher education for millions of aspiring students.
Over the last six years, the Obama administration has made sweeping changes to the college loan market by kicking out higher-priced private lenders, expanding federal loan programs and offering flexible repayment terms. This has increased access to loans and thus expanded the ability to attend college. Other important Obama reforms included linking loan repayment to percentage of yearly earnings. This formula also has allowed students to explore careers in less lucrative but important public-service professions while not being unduly penalized. Republicans have shortsightedly argued such programs create greater costs than long-term benefits.
Unfortunately, Trump policy could jeopardize access to higher education for millions of aspiring students.
Under Obama, tough regulation, including important consumer-protection laws, were enacted to rein in for-profit universities — such as Trump University — that often used false advertising and high pressure sales tactics to entice and overcharge students for inferior educational services. Under a Trump presidency, much of this college-loan reforms and consumer protections could be rolled back.
If Trump imposes privatization, government involvement in college loans could be reduced or eliminated, increasing costs and restricting the number of qualified students. This policy would hit lower-income and minority students particularly hard.
Trump indicated on the campaign trail he would raise the student loan repayment cap from 10 to 12.5 percent of annual income. In return, the repayment period would drop from 20 to 15 years. Doing the math, this shorter repayment term doesn’t add up and would increase government costs in the billions of dollars. This significant cost upsurge reduces the likelihood of legislative approval, leaving student borrowers and ultimately taxpayers stuck with higher costs.
If Trump decides to take a more aggressive approach and repeals the existing student-debt-forgiveness program, it would again disproportionally hurt lower-income and minority students. Making such policy changes now also would disadvantage students who have been bilked by for-profit universities and are still waiting on the courts for adequate financial restitution.
Other policy areas being discussed include requiring universities to share in loan-default risk. For example, if a Boston University graduate defaults on a loan, the university could be forced to collect the debt or even be responsible for debt repayment. Pushing the credit-risk burden on to universities would raise administrative costs and could translate into higher tuition costs. Such policy also could discourage universities from admitting students deemed of higher credit risk, yet again hitting students from lower-income families hardest.
Furthermore, Trump has attacked universities, suggesting that they should lose tax-exempt status if they are unwilling to use more of their endowments to control student tuition costs. The approach falsely assumes that all universities have large endowments that can move the needle. With the exception of Harvard, Yale, Stanford and a handful of other schools, most college endowments are not in the multibillion-dollar club.
Endowments already are used to help subsidize tuition costs for many well-deserving students. They also represent an earning asset to help universities plan for the future and meet strategic goals. To require endowments to pay out more would require them to eat into precious capital and thus reduce the beneficial role these assets should play in the future.
On immigration policy as it relates to higher education, there are over a million foreign students attending U.S. colleges annually with 10 percent coming from Muslim countries. Policy statements by Trump have raised concerns for many Muslims as they consider which schools to attend in which countries. Preliminary signs already point to a decline in foreign-student applications to U.S. colleges. A decline in enrollment of full-paying foreign students would put upward pressure on tuition costs that might be passed on to remaining students. Such discriminatory policy also negatively impacts classroom dynamics, level of diversity and learning that happens when students from different cultures and backgrounds come together.
Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary ... creates only more uncertainty in the higher education world.
Meantime, the Deferred Action Childhood Arrivals Program signed into law by President Obama in 2012, which provides some protection to undocumented immigrants who are attending college, also could be in danger. Disbanding this program would erode the cultural inclusiveness that is one of the strengths of our higher education system.
Trump’s nomination of Betsy DeVos as education secretary, someone who lacks hands-on teaching experience and who supports public school funding cuts, creates only more uncertainty in the higher education world. Her policies would set the standard for how students are taught and what resources are (or are not) made available. Such decisions will influence the quality and quantity of college students able to represent the class of 2021 and beyond.
Lastly, Trump has indicated he would like to reduce the “unnecessary costs” associated with compliance of federal regulations such as Title XI, the law governing gender equality in higher education. Given the epidemic of sexual harassment on college campuses, monitoring, policing and mitigating such abuses is not optional. This significant problem does not go away simply because federal enforcement is relaxed. To the contrary, such policy, oversight and costs are necessary in today’s higher education world.
The sustained greatness of America — its economic and social fabric — is made stronger when the dreams of its citizens are met. One hopes Mr. Trump’s policy decisions show a greater understanding of the vital role our nation’s colleges and universities play in fulfilling this promise.
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