Don’t let Congress undermine students’ ability to pay for higher ed

Author: Nicolas Cordova - March 9, 2018 - Updated: March 9, 2018

Nicolas Cordova

Just as the nation’s attention to underserved communities and sexual assault victims has increased, the U.S. House of Representatives has — acting purely along partisan lines — taken steps that have the potential to significantly harm these groups. The House is currently considering a bill, inaptly named the “PROSPER Act,” that would drastically limit the ability of students with financial need to pay for higher education and weaken protections for sexual assault victims.

The PROSPER Act makes higher education much less affordable

The Federal Reserve reported that the average level of student loan debt in 2017 was close to $33,000. In Colorado, 2016 graduates fared better with an average level of student loan debt standing at $26,529, according to a report by LendEDU. Congress ought to be looking for ways to help push these numbers down. Instead, it is considering a bill that would do the exact opposite.

While students with financial need are in school, the federal government can pay for the interest on their student loans. These “subsidized” student loans help make the skyrocketing costs of higher education more bearable since the amount borrowed does not grow while the student is in school. The PROSPER Act would completely eliminate subsidized student loans for new students. Just last year, more than 29 million students received subsidized Stafford loans, according to the National Student Loan Data System (NSLDS). Under the new system established by the PROSPER Act, these millions of students with financial need would see their loans increase with interest while they are pursuing their degrees. This bill would force millions of deserving students to either forego higher education because of the larger debt obligations they would take on or to leave school with substantially more debt.

The PROSPER Act also completely eliminates loan forgiveness for new students. In doing so, the PROSPER Act makes pursuing careers in public service much more difficult. Under the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program, graduates who teach in low-income schools can have their loans forgiven after making payments for five years. Additionally, the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program forgives student loans for those seeking jobs in such fields as rural medicine, mental health, social work, low-income legal assistance organizations like Colorado Legal Services, district attorneys’ offices, and the Colorado State Public Defender’s Office after they make 10 years of payments.

In 2016, the NSLDS reported that, from 2009 to 2016, over 240,000 teachers had their loans forgiven under the Teacher Loan Forgiveness Program. Moreover, close to 740,000 graduates reported in 2017 that they were seeking jobs in public service and were eligible to have their loans forgiven under the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program, according to FedLoan Servicing. We should be encouraging graduates to pursue careers in these fields. Instead, with the rising costs of higher education and the potential elimination of loan forgiveness programs, the PROSPER Act would prevent thousands of graduates from even considering these fields.

Overall, this bill would put up giant barriers between prospective students and their education. The Congressional Budget Office reported that this bill would remove roughly $15 billion in federal student aid over the next 10 years. Eliminating subsidized student loans and loan forgiveness programs dramatically constricts the ability of Colorado’s most deserving students to pursue a degree in higher education and a career in a much-needed field.

The PROSPER Act weakens sexual assault victims’ rights

Rather than strengthening the rights preserved for sexual assault victims under the Clery Act and Title IX, the PROSPER Act significantly scales those rights back.

Currently, the Clery Act requires school counselors to report crimes that occur on and near its campus, including incidents of sexual assault. The PROSPER Act removes that requirement for reporting of incidents of sexual assault and, in fact, allows schools to decide which crimes are reported and which are not.

Currently, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights states that most sexual misconduct investigations should be completed in 60 days. The PROSPER Act allows schools to delay or indefinitely suspend those investigations. Victims may have to wait for months on end for their cases to get resolved—or their case might never get resolved.

Under the Obama administration, all Title IX disciplinary investigations needed to satisfy the “preponderance of evidence” standard, meaning the conclusion that the accused party committed the alleged misconduct must be more likely than not. Think of those classic “scales of justice”: the accusing party needs to present enough evidence to bring the scales so they tip even slightly in its favor. In that case, the evidence shows that one side’s account is more likely than the other. The PROSPER Act removes that requirement and allows individual schools to establish their own standards, meaning a school can make it more difficult to discipline one its students for an incident of sexual assault.

In a relatively short period of time, our country has taken steps towards recognizing and protecting victims of sexual assault. While admirable, those steps are not nearly enough. More measures must be taken by our lawmakers to protect victims. However, this bill gives schools too much discretion and takes away too many rights from these victims.

Colorado’s Representatives should vote against the PROSPER Act

No date has been set for the full House to vote on the PROSPER Act. However, House leadership is expected to put it on the calendar any day now. This bill would cost students billions of dollars and compromise their safety. Colorado’s House delegation should consider these students and the harmful impacts this bill would have on the state. As long as these provisions remain in the bill, our representatives should vote against the PROSPER Act.

Nicolas Cordova

Nicolas Cordova

Nicolas Cordova is president of the Student Bar Association at the University of Colorado Law School.