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Reform tackles debt

Campus Correspondent

Published: Thursday, December 5, 2013

Updated: Thursday, December 5, 2013 00:12

This Wednesday, Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut held a conference call with college newspaper reporters from across the state to reach out and discuss the Affordable College Costs Empower Students Success Act of 2013, referred to as ACCESS, which he will introduce in Congress next week. Partnered with fellow Democrat and Hawaii Senator Brain Schatz, Murphy believes it will pass as a stand-alone bill yet hopes it will be adopted and included in the larger all-encompassing Higher Education Authorization Act that will be debated next year.

“I think college affordability is the middle class issue of this generation,” Murphy stated, reflecting on how even a large part of his income goes towards past and future college costs. Not only is Murphy one of the few members of Congress still paying back his own student loans, he is also already working to save for his two young sons’ college educations.

This July, a bill was signed into law that aimed to reduce the interest rate of student loans by substituting a system where Congress fixes the interest rates every year with a market-based mechanism that is capped and tied to the government’s cost of borrowing. Although this law has much support, Murphy believes that the policy on higher education cannot begin and end with a debate over the interest rate. Instead, he sought a more comprehensive solution that led to the formulation of the ACCESS bill. ACCESS aims to increase for-profit colleges’ innovation and accountability, making college more affordable and lowering their overall “sticker price.”

“It’s taking too long for students to become lawyers, doctors, engineers and teachers,” Murphy asserts, believing that lowering the amount of time it takes to earn a degree would be an innovative way to make college more affordable.

It takes six or more years for over half of graduates to complete their degrees; by reducing the number of years, we can reduce the amount of debt. ACCESS advocates for a college education system not based on time, years, or credit hours, but instead competency. Although he respects students who may want to have a traditional, but also expensive, four-year college experience, Murphy believes there should be options, such as accelerated programs and competency-based degrees, for students who want to reduce cost by getting a degree in the shortest time possible. This would be accomplished in the act by “authorizing and funding a new evidence-based competitive pilot program” that will be “rigorously evaluate[d] to ensure students are getting a quality education. “
The second part of the bill, holding colleges accountable, is much more controversial and may not be well received by colleges that operate for profit. It will condition federal aid to schools based on their quality and affordability. Schools will be incentivized and rewarded for improving affordability and realism, however if they do not deliver results will ultimately lose eligibility for Pell Grant and Stafford Loan funding. The minimum standards institutions must meet to maintain federal funding will be determined by a commission not only of education experts and stakeholders outside of government, but students themselves. The inclusion of college students in this process will include a broad representation and give these standards more legitimacy, and is a very unique and appealing aspect of the bill.

Murphy made sure to note that these standards will vary between types of colleges, as there are some accountability factors that are outside of schools’ controls and that vary from situation to situation. He used the example of a community college, where students may have to leave to enter the workforce, versus a more prestigious, private school.

Colleges have historically backed away from accountability standards, and their inclusion will be the largest obstacle to the bill passing. However in a time where college debt has eclipsed $1 trillion (second to only mortgage debt), tuition rates are outpacing inflation, Murphy and his colleagues in Congress are preparing to make a tough stance. This is a bill that not only college students should keep on their radar, but also their families and students considering college.

 

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