Giving students the opportunity to prosper

Published 6:27 pm Friday, December 8, 2017

When the Higher Education Act (HEA) of 1965 was passed into law, millions of students gained access to higher education.

This fall alone, over 20 million students enrolled in colleges across the nation. While we should celebrate this success, we must now address the growing number of students who are struggling to afford or complete their education.

College costs continue to rise annually, and each succeeding class of students finds itself in a more perilous financial situation. In fact, last year, 580,000 student borrowers defaulted on their loans. These same students are leaving higher education institutions unprepared for the job market. With six million jobs unfilled, there is clearly a skills gap between our higher education system and the realities of our economy.

If we want the next generation to enjoy the benefits of higher education, we have to shift our focus. We must give our students the opportunity to prosper.

In the House Education and the Workforce Committee, we are tackling these problems with The Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity Through Education Reform (PROSPER) Act. This bill would limit the federal government’s over-regulation of higher education and instead create more transparency, accreditation accountability and modernized market-alignment to put downward pressure on college costs. The PROSPER Act would also make changes to help more students successfully complete their education, move into a career and pay down their loans.

By making common-sense reforms like simplifying the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), annual loan counseling and doubling the allocation for work study programs, we make higher education more practical for students from all walks of life and give them the resources to successfully complete their degrees. Eligible students would continue to have access to a new streamlined ONE loan, year-round Pell grants and even be eligible for a new Pell bonus if they enroll in more courses to complete their degree faster.

This bill also includes legislation I introduced that is specifically aimed at reforming the repayment process and helping students make active progress toward paying down their student loan debt. Our current student loan repayment process is too complex, leaving borrowers confused or unaware of their repayment options. Even with five income-driven repayment options, only 28 percent of borrowers choose or are able to repay their loans based on their income. My bill would simplify the repayment process, offering one standard plan for borrowers to pay their loans in ten years and one income-based repayment plan that caps interest accrual at ten years.

If students graduate without the skills to succeed in the workplace, institutions need to be on the hook and motivated to change the way they do business. That is why the PROSPER Act would give students more access than ever before to information about the institutions they are interested in attending.

It would also ensure universities are responsible for repaying portions of a student’s loan if they do not complete an enrollment period and move toward a program-level repayment rate as the main metric to decide if an institution can accept federal student loans. These changes would make it clear which programs are better equipping students for successful completion, and, more importantly, would allow Americans to identify programs that leave students worse off. We have continued to develop our higher education policies since the passage of the HEA in 1965.

Some of these policies have been a stepping stone, but many have given students and institutions the wrong incentives and have not taken students directly from the classroom to a job. The PROSPER Act changes focus, putting students back in the driver’s seat and empowering them to make informed decisions about their education that will set them up for success.

Drew Ferguson is the U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 3rd congressional district. He formerly served as the mayor of West Point.