Higher Education Financing is Broken. One Republican Senator is Trying to Fix It.

In Washington there are talkers and there are doers. When it comes to actually finding ways to make higher education more affordable Democrats tend to love to talk. Republicans are trying to do.

President Obama has been one of the worst culprits. Every four years, just about the time election season is rolling around and his team is looking to re-energize his youth base, President Obama tours college campuses and talks to them about how expensive college has become.

“At a time when a higher education has never been more important or more expensive, too many students are facing a choice that they should never have to make,” President Obama said in August 2013. “Either they say not to college and pay the price for not getting a degree—and that’s a price that lasts a lifetime—or you do what it takes to go to college, but then you run the risk that you won’t be able to pay it off because you’ve got so much debt.”

But when it comes time to actually draw up solutions to the problem they inevitably involve one of two things: More funding for Pell Grants or increasing options for student loan relief. There are several problems with these approaches – they incentivize colleges to raise tuition to capture the increased federal subsidy, they encourage students to take on more debt than they can often afford, and they disincentivize students from looking at the economic impact of their educational decisions; but most fundamentally, the problem is that they tackle a symptom rather than the disease itself.

Democrats’ unflinching desire to talk about debt is a noble gesture, but that’s all it is – a gesture. It ignores that the real reason for soaring student loan balances is soaring college costs. So rather than take on the broken status quo of higher education, Democrats, with President Obama at the helm, simply throw some money at the problem with little regard for the fact that it will make the problem worse in the long-term. After all, they are only talking, not doing, so what does it matter?

Republicans are taking a bolder, albeit riskier, approach. Senators like Mike Lee and Marco Rubio have offered solutions that would fundamentally change the higher education landscape. Their plans, which we’ve written about extensively, would end the cartel-like behavior of accrediting agencies, would embrace the creative destruction that comes from bringing technology to the realm of brick-and-mortar institutions, would incentivize novel ways of paying for college, and would allow families access to information to improve their ability to make college choices.

Now, Senator Alexander, chairman of the Senate education committee, is working on his own ideas that he hopes can be achieved in the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act.

“As the committee continues its work to reauthorize the Higher Education Act this year, I am asking the higher education community—including students, parents and others interested in our colleges and universities—to tell us their thoughts on three important issues: how to improve our accreditation system, how to give colleges some ‘skin in the game’ as one way to discourage student overborrowing and excessive student debt, and how to make sure that the data being collected to help students and their families be better consumers is useful, clear and concise.”

To guide the coming discussion Alexander has released three white papers that delve into the problems and offer a framework for solutions. For instance, in one he notes that accreditation is supposed to serve a role as a “gatekeeper” to ensure that federal funds are going to quality institutions and yet by nearly every metric from student learning, to academic rigor to workforce skills, our institutions are failing. Among other things Alexander proposes to streamline the accreditation process to focus on quality, allow for gradation in accreditation scores to better reflect quality, and to embrace innovation by allowing quality review models for non-traditional providers (for instance, an in-house apprenticeship program set up by a large manufacturer).

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. But still, at least one political party has recognized that there is an iceberg and is actively trying to turn the ship rather than engage in some vainglorious attempt to melt it with the hot air of their campaign promises.