A Path to Debt-Free

Senator Elizabeth Warren, an influential progressive voice among Democrats, lays out her vision for accomplishing debt-free college. It will take a drastic overhaul of higher education policy, she says.

June 11, 2015
Senator Elizabeth Warren

WASHINGTON -- Seeking to put some policy heft behind the progressive vision of debt-free college that is gaining steam on the campaign trail, Senator Elizabeth Warren on Wednesday outlined a sweeping college affordability agenda to “dramatically reform” higher education.

“While not every college needs to graduate every student debt-free, every kid needs a debt-free option” at a public university, Warren said in remarks at the American Federation of Teachers.

Making college more affordable, she said, would require a boost in federal spending but also greater accountability for how colleges and states use that money -- a “one-two punch” that she said should have bipartisan appeal. Warren wants a new federal program that would provide funds to states that make some public higher education options so inexpensive that borrowing would not be required, and she wants more federal funding to come with more strings attached.

“We can do it if Republicans admit that we will never have affordable college without investing more resources in education,” she said. “And if Democrats admit that we will never have affordable college without demanding real accountability in exchange for those investments.”

Warren spread around the blame for the rising college costs students currently face: some colleges’ wasteful spending on luxury amenities like climbing walls, administrative costs and extensive marketing (she reserved special criticism for for-profit institutions); state budget cuts to public higher education; and an Education Department not doing its part when it comes to consumer protection and regulating colleges.

“There are real reasons to worry about whether the Department of Education is committed to enforcing federal rules designed to help students,” Warren said, echoing the rhetoric she’s used to slam financial regulators she views as too favorable to Wall Street interests.

She criticized, for instance, the department’s “bailout” of Corinthian Colleges last year and its investigation into the loan-servicing company Naivent, which she said was “too big to fail.” She also slammed officials’ refusal turn over data and information about the performance of federal student loan programs and troubled colleges.

“The Department of Education needs to show that there’s a real cop on the beat,” Warren said. She called on department officials to “get tough.”

Warren also called for external checks on the Education Department like allowing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau to review complaints relating to the federal student loans the department manages.

“We don’t trust a bank to handle its own complaints, and we shouldn’t trust the federal student loan program to do it, either,” she said.

Aside from bureaucratic improvements at the Education Department, though, Warren said the federal government’s financing system of higher education needs a fundamental overhaul. Too much federal money is flowing to colleges, she said, without any incentive for those institutions to keep prices affordable.

For-profit colleges are one culprit, Warren said, but she alluded to others, calling out amenities of residential nonprofit colleges like lazy rivers.

Warren called for greater funding of higher education from the federal government -- but she said it should come with far greater accountability.

For states, Warren proposed both carrots and sticks. On the one hand, she wants the federal government to pour more money into states to prod them to create “at least one path to a debt-free college degree for all students” at public universities. At the same time, she said, states should be required to maintain a minimum level of investment in their own colleges in order to receive federal financial aid dollars.

In addition, as her own plan to refinance student loans stalls in a Republican-controlled Senate, Warren called on states to create their programs to allow existing student loan borrowers to lower the cost of their debt.

Colleges should also have to pay up when large numbers of their graduates aren’t able to repay their loans, Warren said, reiterating a call for “risk sharing” between the government and institutions.

Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the Republican who chairs the Senate education committee, similarly endorsed, in concept, risk sharing as a new accountability tool in his higher education agenda earlier this year. He’s also said that scaling back burdensome federal regulations on colleges and simplifying federal student aid are his main goals in the upcoming rewrite of the Higher Education Act.

Although there may be some alignment over holding colleges more accountable, Warren’s push for large investments in higher education is likely to face Republican opposition. She did not identify Monday how she planned to pay for the increased federal spending. Far more modest proposals -- such as student loan refinancing or free community college -- have not fared well in Congress.


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