Editorial: Questions for Brown on higher education
This week, Scott Brown’s U.S. Senate campaign released a list of proposals for making college more affordable. While the memo lacks depth – it’s barely more than two pages long – Brown should be commended for addressing a serious concern for families across New Hampshire. The real test will be if Brown fleshes out these proposals with specifics. He also needs to truly understand and communicate to voters the challenges of higher education today.
When a young Scott Brown entered Tufts University in 1977, the school’s tuition was an inflation-adjusted $14,324, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education. Freshmen entering the university this fall will pay $47,596. (Neither of those prices include room and board, food or fees.) That’s a 232 percent increase in real cost over 35 years. According to the Labor Department, college costs have risen faster than those for health care, gasoline or housing over those past three decades.
In other words, the basic promise of higher education is being eroded by skyrocketing costs. We know the important role college plays in allowing teens of modest means to transform their lives and prospects. But they should be able to afford it first.
Brown makes some interesting suggestions in his memo, such as allowing students to refinance their student loan debt and encouraging technological innovation at colleges. He also suggests – somewhat nonsensically for a free-market conservative – that colleges tie tuition increases to the rate of inflation in order to receive federal financial aid. (We wonder if he would be open to such a proposal in the health care sector.)
Many of these proposals have bipartisan support, and in a world where the U.S. House and Senate functioned effectively, they would already be law. Be that as it may, Brown’s engagement is heartening.
But none of these proposals seriously deals with the challenges of cost mentioned earlier.
Federal Pell Grants haven’t kept up; despite emphasis and investment from the Obama administration, they’re less than $6,000 a year per student. The neediest students are thus forced to rely on loans, and tinkering with interest rates and repayment terms doesn’t change the frightening escalation of debt.
Republicans as a group haven’t given families much to cheer about, either. House budget guru Paul Ryan’s latest plan proposed cutting Pell Grants and accused the White House of making “Pell Grants more generous than the federal budget could afford,” according to the website Inside Higher Ed. His budget would also cut federal spending on student loan programs.
The questions for Scott Brown, then, are simple.
What does he think the government’s role is in higher education? Does he think that the proposals in his campaign’s memo go far enough? Or are those simply the easiest political targets? Does he support expanding funding for direct student assistance, like Pell Grants? Should the government intervene more directly in keeping college costs down?
Brown has started this discussion, but there is much to be done before all of the students who want to attend college can afford it.
Let’s hope the discussion continues on the campaign trail this fall.