The White House has announced its new Student Aid Bill of Rights, which includes four points:
- Every student deserves access to a quality, affordable education at a college that is cutting costs and increasing learning.
- Every student should be able to access the resources needed to pay for college.
- Every borrower has the right to an affordable repayment plan.
- Every borrower has the right to quality customer service, reliable information, and fair treatment, even if they struggle to repay their loans.
But who are we kidding? We might as well call it the "Student Debt" Bill of Rights. If you disregard the lip service it pays to reducing tuition, the bill is about managing student loan debt. To be clear, I do believe that centralizing the loan tracking and management systems into one website, providing better consumer protection by creating an efficient complaint system, and making it easier to discharge student debt in bankruptcy are all steps in the right direction. However, without serious steps to curb the exorbitant rise in tuition, this bill will only enable students to over-borrow. It misleads them about the high cost of student debt. The bill tells students that it is okay to borrow because it reassures them that they will be provided with easy repayment plans, including the possibility of some loan forgiveness. The truth is, as long as the government ties the disbursement of loans to the cost of attending college, the current system enables schools to raise tuition with the assurance that students can make up the ensuing financial gap by taking out loans.
The rights the White House offers only deal with one part of the problem. They accept that tuition is high, and therefore focus on solutions for a world full of debt. There needs to be more pressure put on colleges to reduce their tuition, as well as more financial education for students and their families. If financial education could be integrated into our high school curriculum (or if we could at least provide better financial entrance counseling when students get to college), then students would have a better understanding about what they can reasonably borrow. A recent Brookings Institution report found that about half of first-year students seriously underestimate how much debt they hold, which shows that many students don't fully understand the financial aid package they have agreed to. This is alarming!
President Obama's efforts to simplify the student loan program and to end poor loan services and deceptive debt collection practices are all good. However, the changes he put forward do not go far enough to adequately address the problems of high tuition and high debt that threaten the future stability of our higher education system. His rights do not lift the shackles of debt from the backs of our students.