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We Have an Opportunity to Transform Higher Education for the Better. It’s Time to Do So.

Mark Huelsman

An analysis of the House's recently introduced College Affordability Act

The Higher Education Act was last reauthorized in 2008, making this period the longest amount of time between reauthorizations since it was signed into law in 1965. A lot has happened in the intervening 11 years: College prices have risen nearly 30% beyond inflation at public colleges and nearly 25% beyond inflation at private colleges. We have seen the rise and fall of regulations to hold predatory programs accountable for the debt loads and labor market outcomes of students. Several massive major for-profit college chains have collapsed, affecting hundreds of thousands of former students. Activists and survivors launched a national conversation around campus sexual assault and harassment, and have been engaged in fierce regulatory and policy fights around the role of schools in preventing sexual misconduct and assault. Ending the burden of student debt has become a national rallying cry, as have calls to make all public colleges tuition-free or debt-free.

In too many places, House leaders have opted for tinkering over transformation, leading to a bill in which the whole comes across as less than the sum of its parts.

The law is due for a refresh and the system due for a rethink. Democrats on the House Education and Labor Committee, led by Rep. Bobby Scott, outlined their plan to do so today through a bill called the College Affordability Act. The bill is exceedingly similar to what Rep. Scott proposed last year in his Aim Higher Act. On balance, it has some helpful provisions that would make students’ lives easier and college a bit more accessible – or at least a bit less of a minefield – for the most diverse generation of students in American history. Yet in too many places, House leaders have opted for tinkering over transformation, leading to a bill in which the whole comes across as less than the sum of its parts.

To be sure, there are provisions that Congress should pass as soon as possible. These include ending the racist and counterproductive practice of denying Pell Grants to incarcerated individuals; new investments to provide emergency aid to students and supports for homeless and foster youth, student parents, and those who are food insecure; and reengaging with accountability efforts for predatory colleges and closing loopholes that currently allow for-profit schools to aggressively recruit veterans and service members.

More broadly, though, the bill makes piecemeal investments in college affordability that are useful but not quite transformative, and reads as something that may have been at the leading edge of the debate nearly a decade ago.

One such provision is a $500 boost to the maximum Pell Grant. It’s no secret that the Pell Grant has atrophied tremendously over the years, its value swallowed by higher and higher college costs, thus making college impossible for low-income students to access college without debt. To its credit, the College Affordability Act would plan to index the Pell Grant to inflation, which would stop the bleeding so to speak. Unfortunately, it locks in unconscionably low purchasing power. Currently, the Pell Grant covers 29% of the total cost of attendance at public 4-year college, its lowest value ever. A $500 boost to Pell means that the total grant would cover 31%, hardly a life-changing policy for our poorest students.  

The bill includes a federal-state partnership to make community colleges tuition-free and allow grant aid to be used for living expenses. This is a sensible idea, something that President Obama proposed in his second term, and the bill also includes direct aid (and ostensibly, a pathway) for community college students to attend Minority Serving Institutions at little or no cost. There’s exciting evidence around the power of free college, and the architecture of a federal-state partnership has the potential to keep states from divesting in public colleges and universities.

But for a bill outlining an ostensibly progressive higher education vision, it still leaves community college students – even those who receive Pell Grants – with substantial unmet financial need. A more equitable approach that recognizes wealth disparities for black and brown students would aim to make community college debt-free, either by substantially ramping up grant aid or otherwise providing a larger subsidy to states or students in addition to eliminate total unmet need.


Average Cost of Attendance, Community Colleges

Eliminating Tuition

New Maximum Pell Grant ($500 increase)

Total Remaining Annual Cost





Calculations from the College Board, House Education and Labor Committee


More importantly, while 4-in-10 students are at community colleges, a progressive vision for higher education should include four-year schools as well. States, who are fiscally constrained in ways the federal government is not, may opt for community colleges first as the part of a free college plan. If our national goal is to increase enrollment and attainment, not to mention make four-year colleges more representative of the student population as a whole, curtailing the ambitions of students makes little sense. A federal-state partnership should work to address the full cost of attendance, and should reward the ambitions of students whose dreams include both 2- and 4-year schools. Lawmakers should look to the Debt-Free College Act as a model to do exactly that.

Finally, at a time when student debt cancellation is on the national debate stage, it is troubling that the College Affordability Act does little to forgive, relieve, or cancel debt for the 45 million Americans with student loans. The bill would improve and simplify the ability to repay loans and reduce fees, and work to reduce loan defaults, but that is not the same as offloading debt. Student borrowers of similar incomes can have vastly different experiences with debt simply because they are black or brown. Student debt is reinforcing wealth disparities across the economy, and has become a ticking time bomb for students of color in particular. There is now a serious and earnest debate around how much debt to cancel – for which borrowers, when, and how much – and it is disappointing that this plan does not meaningfully contribute to it.

In all, the College Affordability Act moves in the right direction on a few things and would reverse some of the antipathy and hostility the Trump administration has shown to students and our higher education system. The plan harkens back to the second term of the Obama administration, a time when an administration was attempting to rid the system of its worst actors and improve affordability and transparency where politically feasible. Those looking for structural change are left wanting more, as are families looking for a bold, cohesive vision on what our country owes its students and future generations. There’s a chance to give families a guarantee that going to college will no longer mean financial pain, and that the failed experiment with public disinvestment and debt-financed undergraduate education is being rethought. It’s time to aim higher.