Politicians often come up with policies based on false premises. Frequently, they propose ideas destined to do more harm than good. And sometimes they pursue initiatives that are just fundamentally dumb. But it’s rare when any official can accomplish all three at the same time. Enter Senator Josh Hawley (R – Missouri) who last week introduced two higher education bills that – when combined – manage to be misleading, harmful and ill-conceived.
False Premises of the Legislation
According to the press release from his office, Hawley intends to “break up higher education monopoly, provide more options for career training.” His first bill would instruct the Department of Education to develop new certificate pathways (like employer-based apprenticeships and digital boot camps) that would be eligible for Pell Grant support. Claiming that “college costs a fortune” and that students shouldn’t have to “mortgage their lives” to attend school, Hawley concludes “… we have a system that preferences students who want to attend a four-year college over Americans who want to learn a skill.”
This is rich nonsense. First, attacking American higher education as a monopoly is – take your pick – either bizarre or laughable. There are more than 4,500 accredited higher education institutions in the country. These include public institutions, independent non-profit colleges and for-profit schools. Two-year colleges and four-year universities. Research universities and liberal arts colleges. Fine arts academies and technology institutes. Religious schools and military service academies. Highly selective colleges and open-admissions institutions. And these institutions are in a cut-throat competition for a dwindling supply of students. American higher education is not even a system, let alone a monopoly, and Hawley’s mischaracterization obviously is meant to inflame, not inform.
Second, as Hawley and everyone else should know, Pell grants are not restricted to students attending four-year schools or those mythically disinterested in skills. Billions in Pell support is currently awarded to students attending two-year colleges, many, if not most, enrolled in skills-based curricula. Hawley wants to equate higher education with four-year schools because he knows his conservative base is more likely to view them with disdain and suspicion.
Finally, while there’s a case to be made for devoting more government support in the form of Pell Grants to short-term training of skills currently in demand, it also should come with a caveat. Those are the very skills/jobs most likely to be automated away in the future. What will the boot campers fall back on then as they compete in a new labor market?
The Harm of the Legislation
With his second bill Hawley would do real harm. It would require colleges and universities to pay off 50% of the balance of student loans accrued by students who attended those institutions and who later default. It also would prohibit colleges from increasing tuition to help offset this new liability.
Hawley’s plan for student loan debt is even more foolish than the schemes recently introduced by Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Warren and Sanders would essentially forgive student loan debt (in Warren’s plan the relief would be capped for upper-income recipients). They’d let the federal government eat the debt. In Hawley’s world, he’d just make the colleges pay half of it, regardless of why students defaulted.
Imagine you’re a graduate who owes $30,000 in student loans. Thanks to Senator Hawley, you now have a choice: You can pay off your obligation (an increasingly quaint responsibility in the eyes of ambitious politicians), or you can default on the loan and presto!, your alma mater is on the hook for half of the debt. Not a bad deal, albeit an incentive to go deadbeat, even with the severe consequences defaulters can face.
And as for the college forced to pick up half your bill, it would be forbidden to raise any tuition to help pay the tab, regardless of its overall financial situation.The fundamental unfairness of that one-size-fits-all restriction – treating Stillman like Stanford – is obvious, but looking on the bright size, it’s probably un-enforcable.
Singing an anti-higher education song is an old act for Hawley. It was a standard refrain in his stump speech while campaigning against Claire McCaskill. An example: “Senator McCaskill has voted time and again to hand out millions and millions of your hard-earned money to these four-year colleges and institutions that take your money and then churn out increasingly worthless degrees with skills that nobody can use.”
Perhaps it’s just a case of familiarity breeding contempt. Hawley graduated from Stanford with a major in history and then received his law degree from Yale. Both he and his wife were on the law faculty for years at the University of Missouri. Don’t you just hate those four-year universities and their worthless degrees.