During Tuesday night's State of the Union response, Senator Rubio spoke a lot about rising student debt -- perhaps more than President Obama did in his State of the Union address. Here are some highlights.
"I believe in federal financial aid. I couldn't have gone to college without it."
Now that may seem fairly common sense; after all, programs like Pell grants help about 10 million low-income Americans attend college, and federal loans help millions more.
But that declaration of support is noteworthy given the increasingly bellicose rhetoric equating student loans to welfare and gunning toward deep cuts in education. For a Republican leader, and potential presidential candidate, this is an important statement.
"And because tuition costs have grown so fast, we need to change the way we pay for higher education."
We're not sure what he's getting at here, but if he's talking about increasing grant aid for low-income students, instead of relying on loans, I'm all for it!
"But it's not just about spending more money on these programs; it's also about strengthening and modernizing them."
Again, we would generally agree; we need to make sure that colleges are using federal aid in a way that actually benefits students and are held accountable for that aid. Of course, the fact is that funding cuts, particularly at the state level, are major drivers of tuition growth.
"We need student aid that does not discriminate against programs that non-traditional students rely on -- like online courses, or degree programs that give you credit for work experience."
It's a little unclear what he means here. If he's talking about new ways to count credit and deliver education, we're listening -- but if he's worried about "discrimination" against schools that have student loan default rates above 50 percent, then he's lost us. Outcomes should matter and schools that consistently perform terribly, whether online or traditional, should face consequences.
"When I finished school, I owed over 100,000 dollars in student loans, a debt I paid off just a few months ago. Today, many graduates face massive student debt. We must give students more information on the costs and benefits of the student loans they're taking out."
Senator Rubio has a compelling story and on supporting consumer information for students, he is the real deal. This week, Senator Rubio re-released a bill with Senator Wyden called the "Student Right To Know Before You Go Act" that would require states to make data on how much graduates earn from different colleges more accessible. Providing students with adequate information about loans, careers, and schools is not the only answer, but it's an important step.
So clearly Senator Rubio's comments send a good signal to students and families. But rhetoric is not enough.
Just last year, Rubio spent time blocking a bill to keep student loan interest rates low. Then he voted against the bill's final passage. Senator Rubio should explain to students why he took that vote if he seriously wants student support. In fact, he should publicly repudiate those who would systematically gut the federal financial aid system when it is more important than ever before.
Finally, it should not be a surprise that savvy political leaders are talking about college affordability and student debt. Young people are an increasing force at the ballot box, and tuition and debt are top issues for this generation. Any politician that wants to show their stuff to Millennials must address this issue. So, Senator Rubio, while you're thinking about ways to help students and debtors, consider a few more:
· Provide relief for struggling debtors through bankruptcy and loan modification;
· Stand with students as Congress debates interest rates, income based repayment, requiring value from schools, and other important questions over the next year;
· Keep and increase investments in the financial aid that you say you believe in, particularly Pell grants.
· Young Invincibles put together a series of proposals for reforming federal financial aid. Check it out.
Where to start? A big test for the senator may come later this month with the debate over the sequester. Allowing the sequester to happen on March 1 would cut Federal Work Study, AmeriCorps and youth job training -- all bad for young people. Next is the impending interest rate debate this summer. Interest rates are set to double again on July 1 and Congress can either let that happen or take action to find a more affordable, comprehensive plan for student loans. The stakes for young Americans could not be higher.
Your move, Senator Rubio.