Higher Ed: Do Better or Pay a Price

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

January 9, 2020

There’s a rumor in D.C., and it’s one that could pose a challenge for Democrats.

The buzz in Washington is that President Trump, concerned about a populist challenge from the Warren – Sanders left on student debt, may choose to tackle the rising price of college. Unnamed administration officials have floated a series of trial balloons, including institution risk-sharing for student loan default costs. Trump’s political people are groping for an easily communicated policy that doesn’t lead to tuition inflation and works as a counter to the Democrats’ various free college and student loan forgiveness plans.

To keep their edge on the issue and do right by students, Democrats should pre-emptively counter President Trump by going beyond free college and student loan forgiveness plans now being offered.

Specifically, a presidential hopeful would be smart to target high-price, super-wealthy colleges that choose to be bad actors on access and affordability by leveraging the availability of non-student grant aid federal funds and substantial federal tax benefits. Message: “Do better or pay a price.”

Bad stories abound of some of the wealthiest non-profit private colleges like George Washington University and Georgetown, with sticker prices in the $70,000 a year range for upper-income families. Some, like New York University and Hofstra, charge students from families living in and near poverty over $25,000 a year after all grant and scholarship aid. That’s not ok.

At the same time, there is the Felicity Huffman-Lori Loughlin national college admissions scandal and deafening silence in Congress on underlying legal corruption in college admissions reflected in legacy, donor, and early decision preference policies.

The Good Place (Season 4, Episode 2) on preferential treatment for legacy students in college admissions from NBC via Vimeo
And then there’s the group of about 100 rich colleges that combine high price and admissions barriers to exclude large numbers of academically talented students who come from the bottom 50% of the income scale.

Top-flight colleges should be engines of socioeconomic mobility, not vehicles for calcifying inequality.

Democrats can ensure they keep their edge on the college access and affordability issue by proposing a higher ed accountability package targeted on high resource schools.

Such a proposal should do at least three things: (1) cap tuition and fee growth at super-wealthy colleges that needlessly charge working class and poor students tuition and fees; (2) condition tax-exempt status on schools getting rid of unfair admission practices like legacy, donor and early decision preferences that undermine diversity and don’t reward true merit, including overcoming the odds; and (3) institute a public service fee or link the size of the GOP’s new endowment tax on rich colleges that are unaffordable for or don’t enroll their fair share of academically talented working-class and low-income students.

If a candidate wants to up the ante, he or she could include a call for a temporary tuition and fee freeze at public colleges until Congress moves the nominee’s comprehensive college affordability plan. Public college tuition is slated to be pretty flat this year.

Dartmouth, with its $5.7 billion endowment, shouldn’t charge anything to students from working-class and low-income families.

Notre Dame, with nearly a quarter of students who are descendants of alumni, shouldn’t have a legacy preference.

The University of Virginia, a public college mind you, should not be filling just over 10% of its class with Pell Grant students when twice that percentage score in the 90th percentile and higher on the ACT.

If a presidential hopeful won’t step up, a Democrat in Congress should as part of the pending Higher Education Act rewrite and force a vote on this type of package or portions thereof.

Capitol Hill staff will be scared for their bosses ruffling the feathers of the donor class and try to dissuade the effort. But no politician wants to be on the record defending badly behaved rich colleges. Elected leaders just need a little push to show courage on the college access issue in all its forms, and before it’s too late, whose side they’re really on.

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A version of this post appeared previously as an op-ed in the New York Daily News.