Even before the health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the country, American higher education was struggling—too often unaffordable, low in quality, or deeply inequitable. Congress must take swift and bold action in order to preserve and, where necessary, reform public higher education, reinvest in social mobility, and offer education opportunities to people from all walks of life.
Several factors have contributed to gaps in access, outcomes, and ability to repay mounting student debt. For example, years of public disinvestment, resource inequity between two- and four-year colleges, the diminishing buying power of federal financial aid, and poor oversight of risky and sometimes predatory schools have all worsened disparities along the lines of race and class.
The pandemic has only exacerbated these inequities and makes finding a solution all the more urgent if higher education is to become a more accessible path to the middle class. While the Biden administration can make strides through executive actions, fundamentally fixing the system will depend on Congress embracing major reforms. Here are six actions Congress should take on higher education in 2021.
Provide immediate COVID-19 relief
Public colleges across the country are facing declining enrollment and dire financial challenges in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and these challenges are expected to worsen as state budgets contract. Public funding for higher education never fully recovered from the last recession, and new funding cuts driven by the coronavirus have already begun. Community colleges, which are already underfunded despite serving large populations of low-income students and students of color, will be hit particularly hard.
Although Congress has provided two rounds of relief, it is not nearly enough; colleges anticipate needing an additional $97 billion to cover shortfalls. When providing colleges and students with more aid, lawmakers should include funding specifically for public institutions that flows through the states. This would enable Congress to set conditions limiting state cuts to higher education and requiring states to reinvest in their public higher education systems once their economies recover. If funds instead go directly to institutions, Congress should limit funds for for-profit colleges and design its formula to award aid based on colleges’ total head count rather than full-time equivalent enrollment. This will help ensure that the formula does not shortchange community colleges, where many students attend part time but still experience great need. Congress must also provide funding for state and local governments hit by dramatic losses in revenue, without which public colleges will remain on the chopping block despite any additional federal aid.
Furthermore, Congress should address the economic burden that many borrowers with student debt bear today. While the Biden administration has extended the pause on student loan payments and collections through September 30, it left out roughly 9 million borrowers with Perkins loans and commercially held federal loans. Congress should extend the pause to include all federal loan holders. It should also pass universal debt cancellation of at least $10,000, which would eliminate the loan balances of 16 million borrowers, including those most likely to default.
Forge a path toward debt-free college
Over the past several decades, declining investment in public higher education has led to increased costs to students, the federal Pell Grant for low-income students has diminished in purchasing power, and students have increasingly depended on debt to get an education. These mounting challenges worsen long-standing inequities. Today, almost 30 percent of student loan borrowers default on their loans, and debt is particularly burdensome for Black or African American borrowers, almost half of whom will end up in default. In short, much of the risk of college not paying off is borne by some of society’s most economically vulnerable families.
Congress should work to restore the promise of higher education by making public college debt-free and doubling the maximum Pell Grant, with the understanding that a gradual ramp-up may be necessary for both of these programs. Ideally, this would include tuition at public colleges, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and minority-serving institutions (MSIs) as well as living costs up to the full cost of attendance for the lowest-income students. These changes would carry the expectation that families can afford college with a minimal contribution that does not require excessive borrowing, and they should be inclusive of undocumented students. This should be done through a partnership in which the federal government offers additional funding to states that agree to maintain and increase their investment in public higher education, while eliminating funding inequities between two- and four-year colleges.
Ease the burden of student loan debt
In addition to addressing college affordability, Congress must provide solutions for student loan borrowers who have been ill-served by the current system. It could start by reforming the inhumane system of student loan default, which disproportionately affects Black student loan borrowers, students with children, Pell Grant recipients, and veterans.
To address the many challenges that confront borrowers trying to navigate the student loan repayment system, Congress should streamline the number of income-driven repayment (IDR) plans to one that is accessible to all borrowers regardless of income, is at least as generous as existing options, and eliminates the tax burden that current borrowers face for any debt forgiven. It should rein in interest growth for borrowers enrolled in IDR to avoid ballooning loan balances and eliminate instances where borrowers enrolled in IDR get hit with extra interest. Finally, Congress should provide options for a shorter forgiveness timeline for borrowers with low balances.
As the U.S. Department of Education works to find a solution for reforming student loan servicing, Congress should be asking probing questions on how the system ran aground. However, it should limit its interference in details that are better handled by the department, so long as progress is being made.
Improve colleges’ quality and capacity to address equity
Making college more affordable alone is not be enough to fix persistent gaps in college access and completion by race and income. In order to address these inequities, Congress must make a commitment to improving institutional quality, reducing disparities in colleges’ operating resources, and ensuring that every public college has the capacity to serve students well.
The federal government outsources quality oversight to independent nonprofit membership associations called accreditors, which are tasked with protecting students and taxpayers from low-quality institutions. But this system needs much improvement. Congress should require these agencies to set standards on student outcomes, including by setting benchmarks on improvement based on standard definitions and evaluating performance gaps by race and income. It should also require better oversight of these agencies by the Education Department, require accreditors to focus on risky behavior, and increase overall transparency into the accreditors’ actions against institutions.
Congress should also invest in building capacity at underfunded community colleges that serve a large number of students of color and low-income students, in order to increase these institutions’ ability to provide students with supports that are proven to increase graduation rates. It should seek to close funding gaps between two-year and four-year colleges so that all colleges have adequate resources to serve students. This can include additional wraparound supports, such as child care and measures to address college hunger and homelessness, for low-income students and student-parents. What’s more, lawmakers could explore ways to expand access to higher education in so-called college deserts—rural and urban communities where college attainment is low and access to quality, affordable options is limited by distance, lack of public transportation, and other barriers. That could include offering matching grants for new satellite locations, more robust programming, or even in some cases, new colleges.
Hold colleges accountable
Congress must remedy the ineffective system of accountability that fails to prevent schools from siphoning taxpayer money only to leave students with low-quality credentials and unpayable debt. The last recession fueled an increase in enrollment at for-profit colleges and online programs plagued by quality concerns and even fraud. Addressing accountability is critical now more than ever as enrollment at for-profit colleges is again on the rise, students have transitioned online en masse, and years of deregulation have left students vulnerable.
Congress should close loopholes that allow colleges to avoid sanctions for leaving too many of their students with an education that doesn’t lead to jobs that allow them to repay their debt. This includes the 90/10 loophole, which incentivizes for-profit colleges to prey on veterans for their GI Bill benefits.
By strengthening laws that provide protections for students and taxpayers, Congress could end the regulatory ping-pong between administrations that allowed the Trump administration to undo important accountability measures. These measures include rules that protected students from programs that leave them with too much debt and rules that provided a path toward loan forgiveness for students deceived by their colleges. Congress should strengthen requirements that career education programs lead to gainful employment and guarantee that students have a clear path to loan discharge when they’ve been misled.
Finally, Congress should take action to hold college executives accountable when schools suddenly shut down. Existing gaps in accountability have allowed school leaders to profit from running colleges into the ground, leaving students and taxpayers holding the bag.
Create robust policies that support students of color on college campuses
Congress should take action to ensure that the higher education system works better for all students, particularly students of color. For example, lawmakers should put undocumented immigrants, including Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, on a pathway to citizenship. They should also pursue legislation that makes funding available for colleges to conduct equity audits to review their policies and practices. These audits can help identify where they fail to effectively serve key populations, while implementation grants would offer colleges an incentive to remedy the gaps they identify. Finally, Congress should increase funding to HBCUs and MSIs, which play a critical role in serving Black, Hispanic, and Native American students.
As the pandemic rages on, Congress has a historic opportunity to reform the U.S. higher education system to meet the needs of the moment. Lawmakers must think beyond addressing the immediate crisis and undertake ambitious, far-reaching reforms. Making college more affordable, easing the burden of student debt, improving quality and accountability, and closing equity gaps would pay off and help create a more prosperous, more just America.
Antoinette Flores is the managing director for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress.
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