My great-great grandfather emigrated from Italy just before 1900. His father was a weaver from a small town outside of Naples. His grandfather was a cooper. Needless to say, these weren’t lucrative professions. My great-great grandfather settled in New Haven, Connecticut with his few possessions where he worked as a stone mason, constructing buildings in the Italian enclave around Wooster Street.
Through willpower and work, he cultivated the soil in which his posterity could thrive. His grandson — my grandfather — was the first person in my family to attend college. Now, only 60 years since my grandfather graduated, the prospect of a college education is such a fiscal burden that it is becoming elusive. Presidential candidates must address higher education’s place in the American Dream.
Of all the candidates, Senator Marco Rubio’s (R-FL) plan to expand higher education and ease the burden of student debt is the most comprehensive and realistic.
First, Rubio’s plan calls for simplifying the federal financial aid application. This basic, but important, first step will cause less people to be deterred by an overly complex, intimidating application.
Second, Rubio favors creating an online database where parents and prospective students can access information about specific colleges and universities, allowing families to make well-informed decisions about which schools to apply to.
Third, all federal student loans would be repaid using a system known as Income-Based Repayment. This system can keep loan repayments affordable. If one’s income is 150 percent of the poverty line, for example, that individual will pay $0 so long as that is the case. If one’s income is higher, a certain percentage of the income goes toward paying back student loans. Students would never be forced to pay more than they could afford.
Fourth, Rubio has promoted student-investment plans, an innovative way of paying college tuition that would allow private investors to pay the full cost of a student’s tuition. Following graduation, students would pay back investors with a share of their income over a fixed period of time. Depending on the student’s income, an investor may receive more or less than the cost of the tuition they paid for.
Fifth and finally, Rubio’s plan would expand non-traditional education opportunities. He wants to reform the accreditation system so that alternative forms of education are considered as legitimate as traditional universities. Senator Rubio has consistently praised vocational schools, online education and on-the-job training. There is a persistent myth that everyone needs a specific type of education. But Rubio’s plan will widen educational opportunities and allow more people to develop the diverse array of skills necessary for a modern economy. These alternatives are less costly than traditional higher education.
Senator Rubio’s plan has distinct advantages. First, it is comprehensive. The plan would open more doors to higher education for a greater number of people while easing the debt burden on those who pursue traditional paths. Second, it’s realistic. It recognizes that the government cannot afford to pay for college tuition by itself. It also has a chance of passing even a divided Congress.
In comparison, I would like to consider Senator Bernie Sanders’ (I-VT) plan. Senator Sanders has proposed to make tuition free at public colleges and universities, cut student loan interest rates, allow Americans to refinance student loan interest rates and tax Wall Street to pay for it all.
While free college tuition is certainly attractive, his plan is deeply flawed.
First, it will never pass Congress. If Senator Sanders is elected, Congress will still be divided regardless of his calls for political revolution, and the only “Bern” his supporters will feel is the burn of disappointment.
Second, this plan misunderstands loan interest rates. On his website, Senator Sanders laments the irrationality of current interest rates:
“It makes no sense that you can get an auto loan today with an interest rate of 2.5%, but millions of college graduates are forced to pay interest rates of 5-7% or more for decades.”
Actually, it makes perfect sense. An auto loan is secured debt, while student loans are unsecured. In other words, if one defaults, the bank can repossess his car, … it can’t repossess his brain.
Third, nothing is “free.” The money must come from somewhere. In Sanders’ plan, Wall Street will pay with a financial transactions tax. What would this cost the American economy?
I’m just as mad as anyone at Wall Street for royally screwing up in 2008, and those who committed unscrupulous acts of speculation deserve to be held publicly accountable. But Wall Street is not going anywhere anytime soon. Punish the individuals. Don’t punish the American economy as a whole by relentlessly attacking the financial core of its private sector. Furthermore, a Tax Policy Center study found Sanders’ tax will raise only about $50 billion, much less than is needed to fund college for everyone.
Finally, his plan is too narrow in scope. Unlike Rubio’s plan, its sole focus is student debt. It will not expand opportunities to the millions of Americans who would benefit from alternative education.
In sum, consider political and economic realities when determining the most viable plan for higher education. Senator Rubio’s plan is both practical and pro-opportunity.
Jeffrey Cimmino is a freshman in the College.