With bipartisan negotiations underway in the Senate, Congress appears poised to rewrite the Higher Education Act for the first time in a decade. The process represents an exciting opportunity to rein in college costs and increase access for underserved students. To be considered a success, though, it must also protect those students from sham — or simply shoddy — offerings.
We stand at a critical juncture for American higher education. Today’s student body is increasingly diverse, with growing numbers of working adults, part-time students and first generation college-goers. More than ever, students will depend on higher education to pave the way to a successful career. Yet today’s students face unprecedented obstacles — obstacles that are greatest for the very students who most need the opportunity afforded by a college degree. Average student debt has more than doubled over the course of a generation. And even as America becomes increasingly diverse, students of color remain underrepresented at colleges and universities.
Lawmakers are discussing innovative ideas to make college more affordable and accessible. That’s good news, and our organizations support many of those proposals. But Congress must also approach any reauthorization with a commitment to, first, do no harm. Without new measures to protect consumers and hold schools accountable, America’s most vulnerable students will remain at disproportionate risk.
Any reauthorization must include at least three key measures to protect students — especially veterans, service members, students of color and students from low-income backgrounds.
First, Congress must close the “90/10” loophole, which makes service members and veterans a target for predatory for-profit colleges. Under current law, for-profit schools cannot get more than 90 percent of their revenue from federal student aid. The idea is that high-quality programs offering a real return on investment should be able to attract at least some other revenue. But because that provision does not govern Defense Department or GI Bill funds, some of the worst for-profit schools have an incentive to aggressively recruit troops and veterans. Congress should extend the revenue provision to all federal revenue sources and return the cap to the original 85 percent.
Second, a reauthorization of the Higher Education Act must codify provisions of the Gainful Employment regulations to protect students and taxpayers against career college programs that don’t prepare students for successful careers. These programs exist for the express purpose of helping students access better-paying jobs. But in far too many for-profit programs, that promise is a fantasy, even as student debt is very real. An Education Department study found that many graduates of for-profit schools earn less than if they worked a full-time minimum wage job. Under the Obama administration, we implemented a simple “debt-to-earnings” standard for programs that want federal aid: Graduates must, on average, earn enough to afford their student loans. To insulate students from the whims of current or future presidential administrations, Congress should enshrine that standard in statute.
Finally, Congress must allow students to defend their rights under the Higher Education Act. The act contains important standards to protect consumers from colleges, universities, loan servicers and other institutions. But laws are only as effective as their enforcement. Currently, that enforcement depends entirely on the Education Department. If that agency chooses not to aggressively enforce the law, students are often left without recourse. State consumer protection laws can sometimes help, but the protections are more limited, and the standard of proof is often higher. Giving individuals and states the right to defend themselves in court would help hold schools and loan servicers accountable and ensure justice for students.
We know from our time in government: The allure of passing sweeping, bipartisan legislation is powerful, but lawmakers cannot allow it to obscure the interests of the students that legislation is designed to serve. The three measures outlined above do not encompass every policy that would make up a good reauthorization bill — far from it. They represent a backstop for vulnerable students against unintended consequences and ill-intended predators. Congress is off to a good start. Sens. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) have introduced the PROTECT Students Act, which reflects many of the same goals. Now, members of both parties must commit to making these simple, common-sense protections a reality.
John B. King Jr. is president and chief executive of the Education Trust, and served as education secretary under President Barack Obama.
Aaron S. Ament is president of the National Student Legal Defense Network and served as a special counsel and as chief of staff in the Education Department’s Office of the General Counsel under Obama.