As millions of students across the country celebrate graduation, many are also realizing that they will need to pay for the ever-rising costs of higher education. As someone who could not have afforded college or law school without federal programs, like direct loans and the Pell Grant, I know firsthand the financial challenges students face when figuring out how to afford tuition and pay off student loan debt.
For an increasing share of families, federal student loan programs have played an important, necessary role as higher education costs rise. As of March 2019, student loan debt totaled $1.49 trillion — American’s single largest source of non-housing debt. This isn’t simply an issue of more people attending college. The cost of obtaining a four-year degree has more than doubled between 1986 and 2016 in constant dollars, according to the National Center on Education Statistics.
But are today’s students learning twice as much as their counterparts did in 1986 or earning twice the starting salary? For the overwhelming majority, the answer is no.
Today’s students are simply paying more for the same degree from a higher education system that increasingly encourages students to take on unjustifiable levels of student debt. As a result, many of my colleagues on the left are now calling for free college and policies like complete loan forgiveness. These reforms would force lower-income, non-college graduates to bail out the loans of upper-income earners. Thankfully, there are better reforms to help borrowers and create a better higher education system for future graduates.
My Leveraging Opportunities for Americans Now (LOAN) Act would eliminate interest in student loans and replace it with a one-time fee that does not increase and would be paid over the life of the loan, as well as automatically enroll borrowers in an income-based repayment plan. This ensures borrowers are no longer trapped in a seemingly inescapable cycle of debt where the interest accrues faster than the borrower’s ability to repay.
For those that would prefer not taking out any loans, Sen. Todd Young, R-Ind., and I introduced the Investing in Student Success Act, which creates a legal structure for income share agreements (ISA). ISAs are debt-free alternatives to student loans, and they allow individuals or organizations to provide students with money for school in exchange for the student agreeing to make payments linked to their income for a set period of time after graduation.
We must also examine current policies that make it tougher for borrowers to repay their loans. In some states, including Florida, borrowers can have their professional, teaching or driver’s licenses revoked, suspended or denied solely because the borrower fell behind on their student loan payments. It makes no sense to revoke a professional license from someone who is trying to pay their student loans. My Protecting Job Opportunities for Borrowers (Protecting JOBs) Act would fix this catch-22 and ensure borrowers are able to continue working to pay off their loans.
Finally, we must ensure families understand the full costs and benefits of higher education. The cost of a traditional four-year degree has more than doubled in the last 30 years, but critical data, such as schools’ graduation rates, debt levels, how much graduates can expect to earn and other key education and workforce-related measures of success, are not available today. My bipartisan Student Right to Know Before You Go Act would give students more information about how much money they should expect to borrow as well as future earning potential for the schools and areas of study they are planning to pursue.
Congress will soon reauthorize the Higher Education Act (HEA), which authorizes federal aid programs for higher education. As higher education reform discussions get under way in the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, I applaud many of the proposals of Chairman Lamar Alexander, R-Ten., to help students attain a quality, affordable education that fits their goals and lifestyles, including reforming loan repayment options, simplifying the federal student aid application (also known as FAFSA), and increasing transparency to better understand the cost and outcomes of a degree.
As Congress and Alexander’s committee continue work reauthorizing HEA, I look forward to exploring new solutions to ensure our higher education system is more affordable and within the reach of more students than ever before.
Marco Rubio, a Republican, represents Florida in the U.S. Senate.