Students Need Tuition-Free Education, Not a 'Bill of Rights'

Higher education is not just good for the individual's own future, which is often how we think about it. It is, in addition, good for everyone, meaning that everyone should bear its cost, and not just individual "borrowers."
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President Obama recently unveiled a new "Student Aid Bill of Rights," designed to offer "a vision for an affordable, quality education for all Americans." The "Student Aid Bill of Rights" is an extension of various other initiatives related to higher education and student loan reform that the president has pushed throughout his tenure. But the new initiative is clearly a response to numerous alleged abuses of the student loan system among lenders, loan servicers and institutions and burgeoning debt among students, which now averages around $30,000 per student and totals over $1.2 trillion among all borrowers.

The hope is that the "Student Aid Bill of Rights" will help ease the costs and burdens that go along with financing a college education by offering potential fixes to a system that is bruised, though some would say broken entirely. That's welcome news, especially for the growing mass of students who have to take on an often-crushing amount of individual debt simply to have a chance to reap the touted benefits of gaining a higher education.

But it would be a mistake to get too excited, for the simple reason that most of the proposals included in the plan assume the basic structure of the student loan system, as is. That is, the "Student Aid Bill of Rights" largely just augments current practices to provide further, more generous repayment options, improve customer service and ensure consumer protection.

For instance, the "Student Aid Bill of Rights" calls for the creation of a responsive, centralized student feedback system, to help ensure fair treatment throughout the loan process. It also would simplify and extend the benefits of Income-Driven Repayment Plans, while reworking and weighting current loan servicing policies and practices toward borrowers.

Again, such changes are welcome, if only because any positive change to the current way we run the student loan system is welcome. But these changes don't offer anything really new, as the basic structure for these and similar proposals is already in place. We shouldn't hesitate to call it what it is, then: a debt management program. President Obama's "Student Aid Bill of Rights," that is, does not so much address student loan debt as attempt to alleviate some of its more obvious burdens. As the "Fact Sheet" released by The White House puts it, the "Student Aid Bill of Rights" will "help borrowers responsibly manage their debt, improve federal student loan servicing, and protect taxpayers' investments in the student aid program."

The plan, in other words, kicks the can down the road a bit, ignoring larger and more serious issues, notably the whole notion that higher education should be funded through individualized debt. Students don't need a "bill of rights" but, rather, access to equal, tuition-free education. President Obama has, of course, suggested as much with regard to community colleges, but it must extend beyond that to the higher education system as a whole.

That's not because higher education is simply an "entitlement," even though I would unequivocally defend it as a basic right and good, one that can, under most circumstances, enhance well-being. It is, more significantly, a social good, something that we should collectively invest in, for the simple reason that it benefits us all in the long run on numerous levels. Higher education is not just good for the individual's own future, which is often how we think about it. It is, in addition, good for everyone, meaning that everyone should bear its cost, and not just individual "borrowers."

The irony, of course, is that unless we start thinking seriously about our student loan debt problem and proposing substantive alternatives, we will all bear the costs, in one way or another. For instance, by many accounts, student loan debt is already proving itself as a drag on the economy, which we all, of course, have a share in, for better or worse. We can either start exploring real alternatives now -- or risk the consequences, which may in the long run turn out to be worse.

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