The price of college is too damn high.
In fact, the price of higher education today is so astronomically outrageous that it would take an incoming freshman nearly 20 years to pay off a bachelor’s degree — and even longer if they pursued a masters or a Ph.D., according to one study.
Year over year, the cost of higher education continues to rise, with the current average cost of a four-year university reaching over $104,000. By comparison, a degree in 1989 cost around $26,000 ($53,000, if you adjust for inflation). Meanwhile, wages have stayed relatively stagnant, meaning the cost of higher education requires an increasing amount of students to take out student loans to cover tuition, housing, and general costs of living. To date, the student-loan debt in the United States is $1.53 trillion among an estimated 44.7 million people.
“Repaying student loans is by far one of the most oppressive obstacles young Americans face in our country today,” Ally Bernstein, a student debt lobbyist for the Association of Young Americans (AYA), tells Teen Vogue.
“Fortunately, despite the many issues Democrats and Republicans don’t see eye to eye about, there is one thing on which our elected officials do agree: Something must be done about the high cost of college and [student debt],” she says.
AYA, who Berstein lobbies for, is a nonpartisan membership organization that focuses on giving young people a voice in political decisions and increasing youth political engagement.
According to Bernstein, more students are taking on “insurmountable debt with high interest rates” in an effort to secure a college degree, thus leaving them unable to save for retirement, invest in home ownership, pay for quality health care, or qualify for an apartment without a guarantor. The debt, she emphasizes, delays major life events like marriage and starting a family.
With a commitment to tackling the student-debt crisis, Bernstein says the ideological differences regarding affordability and whether or not policies should “cut, boost, or consolidate federal grants and loan programs” are one reason Congress has yet to act on a solution
Bernstein notes that while legislation that would make college more affordable and alleviate student debt has not yet been introduced this session, both the House and the Senate are working on rewrites of the Higher Education Opportunity Act.
In the meantime, Bernstein recommends that young people pay attention to the stand-alone higher-education bills entering Congress this year. Many, she notes, address specific issues regarding affordable education and debt relief.
1. College Transparency Act
A bipartisan bill that was introduced in both chambers of Congress by Senator Bill Cassidy (R-LA) and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) on March 14, 2019, the CTA legislation would establish a postsecondary student data system to provide better data and information about college patterns, post-collegiate outcomes, higher-education costs, and financial aid. The idea of transparency would allow for institutional improvement and a detailed analysis of Federal aid programs. The bill currently has bipartisan support, with 19 cosponsors in the Senate.
“If passed, the legislation would overturn a ban on a federal data system to track employment and graduation outcomes of college students,” Bernstein explains, referencing a federal data system ban implemented in 2008 with the reauthorization of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, which meant colleges had to report data only at an institutional level, not providing more-targeted evaluations.
“The CTA would ensure accurate reporting on student outcomes such as enrollment, completion, and post-college success across colleges and majors. In order to protect student privacy, the bill bans the sale of the data, prohibits access by law enforcement, and limits the use of personally identifiable information.”
2. Employer Participation in Repayment Act
A cross-aisle bill introduced by Senators John Thune (R-SD) and Mark Warner (D-VA) and Representatives Rodney Davis (R-IL) and Scott Peters (D-CA), this legislation aims to aid student-debt repayment. If passed, the act would offer a tax credit to employers that offer to help pay an employee’s student debt.
“Specifically, the bill would expand the tax exclusion for employer-provided educational assistance to include payments of qualified education loans by an employer to either an employee or a lender,” Bernstein explains.
She notes that the bill currently has strong bipartisan support in the House and Senate, with 149 cosponsors in the House and 28 in the Senate.
3.What You Can Do for Your Country Act
Democratic Senators Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) introduced the “What You Can Do for Your Country Act of 2019” earlier this year, along with 13 other senators. This legislation aims to overhaul the ill-implemented Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program (PSLF), which aimed to allow eligible Direct Loan borrowers loan forgiveness after 10 years of full-time service for a federal, state, local, or tribal government organization or specific nonprofit organizations.
Unfortunately, the current system doesn’t work, since 99% of applicants were rejected as of 2018. The new legislation hopes to fix the PSLF’s glaring issues.
“If passed, the bill would allow all types of federal loans and repayment plans to qualify for forgiveness, require better information and guidance to be provided about the program, allow some forgiveness within five years [of public service], and simplify the application and certification program,” Bernstein says.
In addition to heavy support in the Senate, the What You Can Do for Your Country Act is endorsed by 25 different national organizations, including the American Federation of Teachers, National Education Association, and Student Debt Crisis.
4. PROTECT Students Act
With 221 Democratic cosponsors in the Senate, the PROTECT Students Act seeks to protect students, including veterans and servicemembers, from “predatory higher education practices” that for-profit institutions often implement. The bill was introduced by Senator Maggie Hassan (D-NH), with fellow Democratic Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL) as an original cosponsor on the bill.
Bernstein explains the key provisions in this legislation would strengthen the borrower defense, which aids student-loan forgiveness in the face of misleading information provided by schools or certain law violations at their universities. The bill would also improve the 90/10 rule, which prevents for-profit schools from taking more than 90% of their revenue from Title IV funds, and adds safeguards against fraudulent for-profit and non-profit conversations, among many other things.
In addition to keeping a close eye on the progress of these bills within Congress and calling senators to urge them to support these specific bills, young people can stand up for their future in a variety of other ways, including getting involved in politics outside of presidential elections.
“So much energy and focus goes into getting young people registered to vote, but it is important to remember that politics happen every day, not just on election day,” AYA founder Ben Brown tells Teen Vogue.
While Brown emphasizes the importance of voting, calling legislators, and taking to the street to “show our power,” he encourages young people to align themselves with like-minded organizations that have lobbyists who will fight for the issues they care about, saying that’s where real change happens.
“Voting is the most powerful tool we have when talking about changing politicians and dominant political ideologies,” Brown says. “But if we’re talking about really getting what we want, and keeping elected officials focused on our priorities, lobbying may be the real winner.”