Education Writers Association conference tackles student debt and federal politics

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At this year’s Education Writers Association (EWA) conference on Monday, two sessions addressed pressing federal higher education policy issues, including student debt cancellation and affordability of colleges. EWA is a non-profit journalism organization focused on advancing education coverage.

In a session titled “Forgiveness, Fairness, and the Future of Student Loans,” moderated by Cory Turner, correspondent and editor of NPRpanelists were asked whether the Biden administration should wipe out a certain level of federal student loan debt (and if so, how much).

“If the question is whether the Biden administration should cancel all student debt, I’m really no,” said panelist Dr. Sandy Baum, nonresident senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a think tank. “But I think it’s important that people don’t see this as a clear yes-no. There are obviously people who need to erase their debt.

Baum noted, for example, federal student loan borrowers who have experienced fraud and abuse from their colleges, saying they should have their debt forgiven. Still, she disagreed with a large student debt forgiveness, calling it “unfair”.

“I really believe that we need a viable system and that if we cancel all this debt today, we will be back where we started,” she said.

However, panelist Betsy Mayotte, president and founder of The Institute of Student Loan Advisors (TISLA), a non-profit organization offering free student loan advice to borrowers, took a more middle course, saying it needs to make it easier to cancel loans for “the most vulnerable”. borrowers. »

She pointed out that more than a million student borrowers in default owe less than $10,000. These borrowers probably did not graduate, so they did not benefit from an increase in their income thanks to their studies, but they are still in debt.

But Mayotte said talking about student loans exclusively misses the big picture.

“What frustrated me was that student loan debt is the symptom, not the problem — the problem is the cost of higher education,” she said. “So asking me about student debt forgiveness only asks me half the question. I wish the conversation about forgiveness was more in line with the purpose of these loans in the first place.

Dr Wil Del Pilar, vice president of higher education policy and practice at The Education Trust, a non-profit advocacy group and think tank, added that the racial wealth gap is essential to talk about student debt. Black women hold a disproportionate share of the country’s student debt burden, for example. He argued that canceling student debt would be a step toward correcting racial inequalities.

But Del Pilar agreed with Mayotte that the issue of college affordability cannot be overlooked. He noted that higher education has seen an increase in administrative expenses in recent years and a decline in teaching expenses. Many students also struggle with living expenses on top of tuition, so colleges that work to lower tuition are only part of the solution.

“We are funding the students who need it most in this higher education model the least,” Del Pilar added, referring to how more affordable community colleges are often overlooked in state and federal funding.

In a Monday afternoon session titled “Eye on Federal Higher Education Policy,” James Kvaal, U.S. Department of Education (ED) Undersecretary, discussed similar issues with moderator Eric Kelderman, senior reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

“It’s really true that a lot of our conversation about higher education revolves around a relatively small number of places bragging about how many students they’re turning away,” Kvaal said of the change. ‘ED to focus more on inclusive rather than exclusive colleges. “But if you’re talking about where the middle class is coming from, where we’re getting more college graduates from, which is critical for upward mobility, then you’re talking about community colleges and higher education institutions enrolling more students.”

Kvaal explained how the Biden administration, in response, increased funding for minority-serving institutions (MSIs), including historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). HBCUs in particular often outstrip their weight, educating many of the country’s low-income students without the resources of their wealthier, predominantly white peers.

“There is a real challenge in the way we fund the university,” Kvaal added. “If you think like me that our country badly needs these vehicles for upward mobility, but you have many cases of student debt that deprive people of these benefits, where people are sometimes worse than never having been in college, then we need to think about doubling the Pell Grant and increasing funding for MSIs, HBCUs, and community colleges.It also means making sure that colleges that routinely put students in debt that they can’t afford are held accountable.

Kelderman also asked Kvaal about the student loan forgiveness, referring to EWA’s previous session on the subject. For weeks, reports have been circulating that the Biden administration may soon forgive about $10,000 in federal student loan debt. But no movement was made. Critics have also questioned whether Biden has the executive power to have the debt forgiven.

“The issue of student debt cancellation for all student loans is something we continue to study,” Kvaal said. “And we don’t have the answer to that today.”

As for what comes next in the area of ​​federal higher education policy, Kvaal said the ED will soon release a new set of regulations tackling liability issues such as what happens when a for-profit college changes ownership to become a non-profit college.

“I think what’s important is to get it right,” Kvaal said on ED. “The cogs of government aren’t always known for being fast. But if you look across the department, we’re making a lot of progress.

Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at [email protected]

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