What the GOP Should Learn From Student Loan Forgiveness
As Democrats push for radical policies, Republicans have to be willing to push back just as boldly.
The nation just dodged a bullet. The Supreme Court stopped the Biden administration from pushing through an unprecedented loan forgiveness program through unconstitutional executive overreach. This decision is a victory both for taxpayers, who won’t have to fund this unfair wealth redistribution, and for our constitutional system of checks and balances. But the fact that this win hinged entirely on fragile arguments for standing passing through the Supreme Court should be unsettling to voters and politicians alike. Indeed, the denouement of the loan forgiveness saga that has spanned the last decade should prompt Republicans to engage in some self-reflection about their lack of a coherent policy vision on higher education.
For years, there were telling signs that Democrats would pursue student loan forgiveness as part of the larger push for government-subsidized education. There were informal calls for debt forgiveness back in 2012, following the Occupy Wall Street movement. For-profit-college scandals further increased targeted calls for debt relief by Democratic politicians such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and the erstwhile presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who campaigned for the Democratic presidential nomination on tuition-free college, influenced Democrats to adopt more extreme policies. As Democrats tried to out-do one another on who could offer the most benefits for their constituents, it's no wonder that it eventually led to calls for massive student debt jubilees. Warren announced she would use executive authority to cancel up to $50,000 of student loan debt in 2019. And, of course, President Biden ran on a moderated version of debt forgiveness.
The Biden administration’s actions on debt forgiveness represent a gross overreach of the executive branch’s power, as shown in the various lawsuits that they provoked. Luckily, Republicans in Congress have a bill called the REAL Reforms Act, which would limit the authority of all future executives so that no such unilateral action on debt forgiveness could occur. But this bill was proposed in the summer of 2022, just a few weeks before Biden’s well-anticipated announcement of his debt forgiveness plan. Republicans had years to work out a solution to the student debt problem but failed to act until it was already too late.
What were the Republicans doing on higher education during the 2010s, if not addressing student debt and rising college costs? They were tilting at windmills, proposing trivial improvements on cost transparency, adjusting student aid eligibility for foreign medical schools, and carving out student loan deferments for special groups such as airline pilots. Sure, some of these proposals are benign—some are even reasonable improvements. But with higher education costs becoming increasingly salient in the lives of voters, the Republican proposals lacked grounding.
The unfortunate reality is that Republicans had no long-term coherent plan for higher education—and still don’t. While conservative media stir up public rancor against the unfair debt forgiveness policies of Democrats, Republicans seem to be asleep at the wheel, hoping that a few fragile lawsuits would stop the nearly half-trillion-dollar plan from moving forward. Worse, they ignore the fact that debt forgiveness was a response to legitimate issues with the higher education system—issues that Republican politicians have inadequately addressed.
Strict employment regulations, the easy availability of federal student aid, and pushing every person to attend college have made college an expensive barrier to accessing many decent jobs. Democrats respond by proposing to give students immediate and tangible benefits to compensate for the ever-increasing costs of attendance. But they don’t attempt to challenge the presumption that everybody should attend college. Republicans have a unique opportunity to challenge this premise, but they rarely do.
Two bills proposed this spring demonstrate that Republicans will even compromise fiscally conservative principles to avoid challenging the “college for all” ideal. The Federal Assistance to Initiative Repayment (FAIR) Act, a supposed “fiscally responsible, targeted alternative” to Biden’s loan forgiveness plan still forgives debt for some students. It also waives certain portions of interest for lower-income borrowers, which creates costs that will be borne by taxpayers. As progressives like California’s Governor Gavin Newsom push for interest-free student loans, which have already proven to be expensive, Republicans should be careful not to open the doors to such fiscal irresponsibility.
In June, Republican senators introduced the Lowering Education Costs and Debt Act, a “landmark” package of bills, that would make small changes to income-driven repayment programs, an already flawed policy that serves as a safety net for economically non-viable educational programs. The package of bills also suggests mild improvements to cost transparency, which does little to address the reasons why students borrow so heavily for college in the first place. The best aspect of this set of bills is that it eliminates Grad PLUS loans, which, according to recent research, made graduate schools unnecessarily expensive. It is long past time to roll back unlimited borrowing programs such as Grad PLUS loans, which ironically were passed by a Republican-led Congress and signed by a Republican president in 2005.
While it’s a good (late) start, this set of bills is not enough. Republicans should use the loan forgiveness situation as an opportunity to take higher education policy more seriously. They have a chance to reframe the issue away from the stale “college for all” message.
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Younger generations are more skeptical of the value of a college degree. The Democratic Party’s mindless repetition that college benefits everybody doesn’t hold up with today’s underemployment rates for college graduates. Politicians who remain unquestioningly devoted to subsidizing higher education institutions will be left behind. There is a good chance to provide all Americans an actual alternative vision: an America that values diverse paths to success that work with the needs of each individual.
A cohesive conservative higher education agenda should be based on principles of merit, fiscal responsibility, and eliminating credentialism and should substantially roll back federal student aid and loans. The federal aid that is left should go to students and programs with the best economic returns. Lawmakers should work to loosen employment regulations to ensure a college degree is not a mandatory expectation for jobs that don’t need them. Some states have already begun to forego the college degree requirement for government-level jobs. If college degrees become less ubiquitous, private businesses will follow suit.
Loan forgiveness may be off the table for now. But advocates won’t stop until they get what they want. Short-sighted reactions win a few culture war points, but they won’t help Americans and they won’t hold colleges accountable. As Democrats push for radical policies, Republicans have to be willing to push back just as boldly. Otherwise, they can expect to learn an expensive lesson in the future.