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Democrats in the House Have a New (Old) Plan for Higher Education


January 30, 2024

Lately, it’s been Republican lawmakers who have been at the table and offering up comprehensive reform for higher education policy, but this week House Democrats got back in the game. Today, they released new legislation outlining their vision for higher education reform beyond the administration-led student loan cancellation agenda.

In some sense, this marks a welcome return to normalcy, where lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are imagining a better system that we can achieve through legislative change, rather than executive fiat. For years, the left has coalesced around the idea of making progress only through canceling loan debt and executive action, rather than thoughtful legislation. Congress became an afterthought. That said, Democrats put forward several narrower legislative solutions. In 2022, for example, House Democrats put forward the “LOAN Act” which would have doubled the Pell Grant, expanded the Public Service Loan Forgiveness (PSLF) program, increased access to federal loans, and lowered interest rates.

Before President Biden took office over three years ago, discussion of comprehensive reforms that would help students were substantive, and common threads could be found on both sides of the aisle: Streamlining the borrower experience, some version of “holding colleges accountable,” and securing the safety net for borrowers who don’t earn enough to make loan repayment affordable. But all public discourse on those areas of reform seemed to come to a screeching halt when it became apparent that Biden had plans to fulfill his campaign promise (and more) by unilaterally cancelling student debt. It seemed, perhaps, that the party decided that pulling on other threads of reform might distract from the bigger prize.

Despite narrower efforts from the left at legislative solutions, Democrats broadly looked to the White House rather than Congress.

The specifics in the proposed legislation aren’t particularly new or exciting. They revert to many of the ideas that were floated during the campaign season for the last presidential election cycle. These include expansion of the Pell Grant award, free community college, and new rules that take a jab at the for-profit sector while leaving failing public and non-profit institutions to keep riding the gravy train of federal subsidies. While I don’t necessarily endorse the specifics of their proposed legislation, I do applaud them for getting back in the game and moving past merely championing unilateral student loan cancellation.

One promising aspect of their reform proposal, however, is their endorsement of transparency. Republican lawmakers have similarly come to the conclusion that students and parents ought to have access to better information—like a program’s average graduate’s post-college earnings, enrollment numbers, and completion data—when making the decision to invest in higher education. Here, Republicans and Democrats find plenty of room for bipartisan agreement.

In a Republican-led House, the Democrats’ legislation won’t go anywhere. But I welcome the effort, as it seems to mark a return to old-fashioned reform through legislation.