Skip to main content
Blog Post

Republicans Step Up to Lead on Higher Education Reform


July 13, 2023

For decades, the political debate on higher education reform could largely be understood in simple terms. Democrats wanted to spend more money on higher education, and Republicans wanted to spend less—mostly within the nation’s preexisting policy infrastructure. In recent years, however, this familiar paradigm has been upended.

As Democrats lurch leftward, Republican leaders in both the House and the Senate are filling the vacuum left by an increasingly progressive Democratic Party, putting forward pragmatic higher education reforms.

Progressive Democrats have embraced unrealistic and counterproductive overhauls of America’s higher education system like expansive debt cancellation and the promise of a “free college education” for every American. These proposals would ironically benefit highly educated, upper-income voters, rather than disadvantaged students that progressives claim would be given a hand up by such programs.

Meanwhile, Republicans are leaning into realistic solutions that will reduce students’ debt burden and hold poorly-performing universities accountable. While forward-looking Republican lawmakers like Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-NC) and former Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) have been focusing on these issues for quite some time, many of their Republican colleagues are now following in their footsteps.

In June, Republican lawmakers in both houses of Congress put forward legislation that would provide smart, overdue reforms to higher education. The proposed reforms target core challenges facing our higher education system, including the ballooning fiscal costs of lending and ensuring effective safety nets for borrowers should loan repayment become truly unaffordable.

Senate Republicans, led by HELP Committee Chairman Bill Cassidy (R-LA), introduced a package of five bills aimed at establishing more accountability for colleges, protecting borrowers from unaffordable debt, and ensuring that consumers are better informed.

The package includes measures that would increase transparency in the process of shopping and paying for college education, constrain borrowing for graduate school to affordable levels, and implement sensible changes to the system of accountability for colleges and universities.

Additionally, Rep. Foxx introduced the “REAL (Responsible Education Assistance through Loan) Reforms Act” during the 117th Congress which was co-sponsored by Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) and Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY). The bill would extend federal Pell Grant eligibility “to certain short-term workforce development programs,” as well as streamline the federal student loan program to protect both borrowers and taxpayers. This session, she introduced the “FAIR (Federal Assistance to Initiate Repayment) Act” alongside Rep. Burgess Owens (R-UT) and Rep. Lisa McClain (R-MI) which would simplify the repayment process, establish a smooth path to repayment when the pause on interest accrual is lifted, and target relief to those who need it most.

All of these reforms are premised on several straightforward assumptions.

First, taxpayers shouldn’t be treated as a bottomless pit of support for higher education. Higher education is a marketplace, and it shouldn’t enjoy public subsidy without adequate accountability.

Second, if you can afford to pay back your student loans, you should—and if you can’t, there should be well-functioning programs that make sure you don’t have to live forever under the weight of unaffordable student debt.

Third, higher education is a necessary mechanism for social mobility in our current economy. And it needs to work—or at least it needs to guarantee that students aren’t worse off financially than when they started their education journey. As Rep. Foxx mentioned at a recent event on higher education reform, “Research shows 40% of masters programs have a negative return on investment.” That’s unacceptable.

Lastly, colleges and universities should be put on the hook. We can’t keep pumping cash into bad colleges that don’t deliver opportunity for their students.

“Reform to our post-secondary education system is more necessary now than it has ever been,” said Rep. Foxx. She is absolutely correct.

Americans from every corner of the political spectrum should applaud Republicans for coming to the table with thoughtful policy solutions and admonish Democrats for playing politics with this issue that is so critical to our economy.

The predictable outcome of Biden v. Nebraska sent Democrats back to the drawing board. They could’ve chosen to work with their Republican colleagues, and not against them, to enact needed higher education reforms. Instead, they continued with the political antics, putting needed policy solutions for higher education out of reach for the American people until they take control of both houses of Congress.

As Chief Justice Roberts articulated in the majority opinion in the case, “Our precedent—old and new—requires that Congress speak clearly before a Department Secretary can unilaterally alter large sections of the American economy.” It’s unlikely that Biden’s new scheme to forgive student loans without congressional support will survive the courts.

Rather than lead borrowers on, Biden and the Democrats should roll up their sleeves and come to the table with congressional Republicans. Until then, higher education will remain yet another issue that voters care about, and elected officials do little to substantively address.