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What do Republicans have against a college education?

September 2, 2018

College students and their ability to pay their tuition seem unlikely targets for a presidential administration or a political party, especially in an election year. Students represent the near-term future of a skilled workforce and a stronger economy; they are the very premise of progress in research and development in decades to come. And almost all of them are old enough to vote by freshman year.

Incredibly, students who must borrow to cover tuition and parents trying to help them are getting the message that the Trump administration and the Republican-led Congress don’t especially care whether they can afford college or get stiffed by mega-sized lenders or for-profit universities.

Obama-era rules intended to protect student borrowers from loan fraud may have been too vague about whose claims made them eligible for help, but replacement proposals from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are soft on the lenders and hard on the students.

And because this is happening at the same time as a directive to institutions of higher learning to cease affirmative action in admissions, it smacks of telling the middle class, especially minority familes, “Don’t expect any encouragement. You’re on your own.”

The complex business of awarding student aid and making loans involves the college, the federal and/or state government, and the lenders. It’s an upside-down pyramid with a student at the bottom and ever-wider layers of academia, government and money lenders. Its original purpose was a public policy of encouraging higher education for the good of all through public-private partnerships, but that was before the spread of for-profit universities.

DeVos has proposed to reduce the relief offered to students who have loans to pay despite their claims that they haven’t been educated well enough for “gainful employment” income — either because of poor-quality education or because the college stopped offering courses. Seventeen states including Connecticut responded with a lawsuit last year.

Separately, the Department of Defense, in the name of service member retention, proposes new, stricter limits on the parameters of service time that will qualify for sharing GI BIll benefits with family members.

And the Republican Congress helped middle class families and their college-age children not at all with the new tax law passed last year. A family that borrows on its home equity to pay for tuition cannot deduct the interest paid on that portion of the home loan.

Last week Seth Frotman, the government’s student loan ombudsman, who held a nonpartisan position in the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, tendered his resignation. His office had returned $750 million to borrowers harmed by bad lending since 2011. His letter accused Mick Mulvaney, President Trump’s budget director and acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, of serving the lenders, betraying American families, and sacrificing their financial future. DeVos says one purpose of her new rules is to save taxpayer money.

Tuition costs have climbed annually for decades, making it bleakly clear to each generation of parents how much more their children’s costs will be than theirs were. Families who have yet to send anyone to college also look at the costs and wonder how they will ever start.

One set of proposals that deserves a good look from Congress is the Aim Higher Act, introduced this summer by the 17 Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, including Second District Congressman Joe Courtney. The minority Democrats introduced their legislation in response to the Republican “PROSPER” act, which among other provisions would eliminate a longstanding practice of loan forgiveness for physicians and others after 10 years of working in their fields and on-time loan payments.

The Aim Higher Act attempts to come up with a formula that increases access to college, to loans and to credit for public service work, among other provisions. It is worthy of congressional debate, and we urge Congress to use the opportunity of these dueling bills to do far better by the students who only want to better themselves  — without going under.

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