We need a HERO: Our plan to fix higher education

December 15, 2017

The dawn of the 21st century has brought tremendous opportunities and changes to our economy. One consequence is that everyone needs some kind of education after high school. Yet only four in ten Americans achieve an associate’s degree or higher.

It’s a new game, and it’s essential that all citizens can still pursue their American dreams. We need a higher education system that works better for more Americans and their families.

We can begin this process by focusing on four key reform principles: affordability, transparency, accountability, and innovation. These principles are at the heart of the Higher Education Reform Opportunity (HERO) Act, introduced in the Senate this past week.

With respect to affordability, between 1982 and 2007, the average cost of a four-year college education rose by 439 percent, according to the biennial report from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. And costs have only continued to rise in the past decade.

The typical solution to the unaffordability problem has been to increase the amount and types of loans that students can access, but this solution has actually contributed to the exponential rise in tuition rates.

In 2015, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York issued a study that found “a pass-through effect on tuition of changes in subsidized loan maximums of about 60 cents on the dollar.” This means that for every additional dollar the federal government allows students to borrow, colleges and universities increase their tuition by 60 cents, thus increasing the number of students who “need” loans to “afford” college in the first place.

The HERO Act would address the affordability issue by streamlining the current duplicative menu of student loan programs into one option and creating one repayment period for undergraduate loans and another for graduate loans. Additionally, the act would establish caps on loan amounts, to keep university rate increases in check and lower the amount of debt students need to repay once they graduate from college.

HERO's second aim is to improve transparency in higher education. When it comes to choosing a good college and major, parents and students are often left to make these life-changing decisions in the dark.

The HERO Act would ensure that parents and students have access to information about how effective their college of choice is in helping students graduate on time; how burdened by debt students are after obtaining their degrees; and how successful graduates in a particular major are at obtaining jobs that enable them to pay back their loans.

Next comes accountability. Nearly half of borrowers today are not making payments on their student loans. This alarming statistic is one of the reasons some economists have predicted that student loans are the next financial bubble. It is time for a change.

One promising solution is to make sure that all parties in higher education have “skin in the game.” The HERO Act would ensure that colleges have a financial stake in their programs by requiring schools with poor student loan repayment rates to pay a fine. The possibility of a penalty would motivate schools to invest in the success of their students.

Finally, HERO aims to encourage innovation. Today’s post-secondary students come from a range of different backgrounds, from the traditional 18-year-old high school graduate, to the single mom going back to school, to the laid-off worker who needs to retrain mid-career. Meeting the needs of this diverse population means we need a lot more options than we did when current federal policies were first written decades ago.

The HERO Act would accomplish this by changing the way schools are accredited. The HERO Act would enable each state to accredit any institution that provides post-secondary education. With this new accreditation power, states would be able to authorize innovative new education options (for example, massive online open courses, competency-based offerings, and certification exams) for students in any learning situation.

Today’s students deserve an innovative higher education system that provides more and better options to prepare them for the challenges and opportunities of today’s job market. The HERO Act is an important first step toward building that new system. It would open the door to the American Dream for the millions of Americans who are pursuing it.

Op-ed originally published in the Washington Examiner