Alexander on Making College More Affordable: Simplify Loans, Cut Red Tape, Encourage Innovation and Accountability

Posted on February 6, 2018

“The Appropriations Committee will consider whether Congress should appropriate more taxpayer dollars for student aid, but in the meantime, Congress can also help students afford college by better spending the $28 billion in grants and $92 billion in loans we spend annually. This would mean simplifying student aid, redirecting existing dollars for more Pell grants, helping students complete their degrees more rapidly, and making colleges more accountable for students repaying loans.”

WASHINGTON, February 6, 2018 — Senate education committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today said, The Appropriations Committee will consider whether Congress should appropriate more taxpayer dollars for student aid, but in the meantime, Congress can also help students afford college by better spending the $28 billion in grants and $92 billion in loans we spend annually. This would mean simplifying student aid, redirecting existing dollars for more Pell grants, helping students complete their degrees more rapidly, and making colleges more accountable for students repaying loans.”

The committee has held 22 hearings, including today’s hearing, over the last four and a half years including five this year in preparation for reauthorizing the Higher Education Act. Alexander said he “hopes to reach a bipartisan result by early spring that we can recommend to the full Senate.” Today’s hearing was about the cost of going to college.    

“While it is never easy to pay for college, it is easier than many think, and it is unfair and untrue to suggest that for most students college is out of reach financially,” Alexander said. “The average tuition at a two year community college is about $3,600 this year – so a maximum Pell grant would more than cover tuition. In 2015, Tennessee became the first state to offer two years of tuition-free education at community colleges and technical institutes to every high school graduate through Tennessee Promise. The average tuition at a four-year public college is just under $10,000 – so a maximum Pell grant would cover about 60 percent of tuition.”

Alexander continued: “I would suggest we consider what is known as the ‘Bennett hypothesis’ – offered by then Education Secretary Bill Bennett, who argued  that rising federal student aid has an impact on rising college tuition.”

“Despite this, there is no doubt college costs are rising and that a growing number of students are having trouble paying back their debt. These include ideas to: First, simplifying the FAFSA — the burdensome Free Application for Federal Student Aid that 20 million families struggle to fill out each year – to remove it as a barrier to college and help students better understand the range of schools they can afford; Second, simplify the existing two grant programs, five loan programs, and nine repayment programs and redirect some of those dollars to higher priorities, such as creating additional Pell grants; Third, more competency based education would allow students to more rapidly complete degrees based on knowledge and learning, not time in the classroom, therefore saving the student money; and fourth, it makes no sense to spend taxpayer dollars helping students earn degrees that are not worth their time and money, so schools should be held accountable for their students’ ability to repay their loans.”

The committee met on November 28, 2017 to examine proposals to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, on January 18, 2018 to examine proposals to simplify federal financial aid, which currently consists of two grant programs, five loan programs, and nine repayment plans, on January 25, 2018 to examine ways to create an environment that allows colleges to be as versatile as today’s students, and on January 30, 2018 to look at how to hold colleges accountable for students earning degrees they can afford to pay back.

Alexander’s full prepared remarks are here.

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