Staff Editorial: Higher education policy needed

Our View: Lawmakers should put politics aside and address tuition costs, academic competition

In response to $12 billion in student aid cuts passed by Congress in February, two Democratic lawmakers proposed a bill last month to cut in half interest rates on federally subsidized student loans. Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.) and Sen. Dick Durbin’s (D-Ill.) initiative comes after a heated partisan battle that resulted in increased college loan interest rates slated to take effect July 1.

Cuts in student financial aid have the potential to cripple America’s ability to provide broad access to higher education; the Democratic proposal would counter this. However, the debate over peripheral issues such as percentage points in interest rates, while important, underscores the lack of a comprehensive national higher education policy.

The plan to lower loan interest rates may provide some financial assistance to college students if passed, but its purpose seems to be a partisan maneuver for political support. The Democrats’ bill merely challenges the rate increases a GOP-controlled Congress passed earlier this year – potentially a tactic to gain electoral support from younger voters and parents concerned about college costs.

More importantly, this new bill only addresses a single issue in higher education, but highlights broader problems. With college tuition at an all-time high, easing loan payments will not address the fundamental issues behind astronomical school costs. Furthermore, this bill does not take into account academic areas in which our country is failing: science, engineering and technology.

Congress needs to engage in a debate on a comprehensive higher education policy. A holistic national policy should focus on the issues of affordability and academic competition. The introduction of the G.I. Bill after the Second World War made access to higher education a priority. Policymakers should recognize this commitment as tuitions continually increase. The real debate in Congress should focus on why college is becoming increasingly difficult to afford, and what the government should do to remedy this reality.

In addition, a national policy should take into account the competitiveness of the global economy. The United States graduates a hefty number of liberal arts students, but is facing increasing competition from developing countries in the hard sciences. The inability to target areas in which the American educational system is failing means less competition with countries that are quickly producing more workers trained for high-demand careers. Congress must provide strategic incentives that target these competitive fields to curb outsourcing of high-tech and science-related positions.

Increasing college costs may leave America with an economically exclusive higher education system in which only wealthier families can afford to send their children to college. This would perpetuate cycles of poverty and prevent some of the most intellectually capable teenagers from rising to the top academic institutions.

Furthermore, high tuitions may leave an increasing part of the workforce struggling to pay back debt – a problem facing more Americans each year. As these recent graduates are faced with high loan costs, they will contribute less to the economy and bring the potential for a financial downturn.

Students will benefit if the Miller-Durbin bill passes, but this should be the beginning of a debate on broader issues. The higher education system has shown areas in which improvement is needed, and Congress should act to address these problems. Through a focused national policy, America can ensure that its proud academic tradition continues and that it remains competitive in the future.

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