Part 3: Navigating the Treacherous Shoals of Congress

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We live in an odd time where the content of legislation is rarely considered on its merits.  What matters most is the origin of legislation and the party of its champions.  If it is the child of another party, it will be dead upon arrival which is to say, it won’t even be read much less considered.

Let’s for the time being disregard that such attitudes may be in violation of their oaths of office and see if we can craft a way that can break through the current toxic legislative environment, the real source of American frustration with government across the political spectrum.

The plan proposed in the overview in Part 2 is, frankly, a mostly conservative, business-like approach to an ongoing problem that was created with the approval of the United States Congress about 50 years ago.  It no longer serves the people well and it seems logical that Congress has a duty and a moral obligation to fix it.  It is mostly their mess and now it is time to clean it up.

Let’s review what we outlined as the plan’s benefits in Part 1 of this series.  The plan….

•    Eliminates forever the scourge of student loans for non-profit colleges
•    Preserves the financial well-being of parents
•    Is 100% reliable and transparent
•    Protects and even enhances the financial strength of colleges
•    Includes a comprehensive, confidential rating system for colleges that is not available to the general public and is not in any way rank-ordered
•    Provides incentives for colleges to rein in costs and to assure graduation in four years
•    Creates unrivaled college access to all qualified, college-ready students regardless of economic status, race or ethnicity where the primary currency for admission is talent and character not dollars
•    Dramatically reduces the growing bureaucracy in the U.S. Department of Education
•    Eliminates the FAFSA and CSS Profile financial aid forms along with their associated paperwork
•    Encourages and enables parents to focus on saving for retirement rather than college
•    Mobilizes the full talent reserve of the nation
•    Includes a smart public/private plan using the already-in-place tax code to pay down existing student loans
•    Reduces the reliance on off-shore human resources
•    Enhances the security of the nation.  Well-educated, prosperous people tend to look for non-military solutions.  But if all else fails, history would suggest that wars are usually won by smart people, not smart bombs.
•    Benefits “Main Street” and ordinary Americans instantly
•    Creates a huge, ongoing economic windfall for the economy

Many of the benefits could be applauded by both parties.  Conservatives would love the shrinking of the Department of Education bureaucracy and the clear benefits to the economy in general while progressives will appreciate the simplicity, its reliable outcomes for the end user and the kinds of opportunity that will follow for any talented young person regardless of background or social status.  There is something for everyone but in this Congressional environment, the plan will be picked apart and emerge in some other form that omits parts of the plan that make it so powerful.  The old expression that a camel is a horse made by Congress is not far from the truth but there may be a way that all parties can celebrate.

Conservatives in Congress are not lovers of “big government” initiatives and Progressives are not advocates of most business models because they seem to benefit only a small minority of the general population usually the wealthy.  And that’s the lay of the land so let’s find a way to join hands and frame the plan for what it really is, a government-sponsored (that means all of us), straight business deal that creates some nice outcomes for everyone including the wealthy.

Here’s what to do:

  1.  Hire a neutral resource to do a thorough cost-benefit and/or a cost-effectiveness analysis of the impact on the nation’s economy of the present college financial aid system.  An organization like the Hoover Institute at Stanford filled with smart academics from a wide range of political outlooks would be a good choice.  They would look at how the specter of college costs affects the consumer behavior of families throughout their lives along with the actual costs of college.  Consider the economic impact of debt on young people including the effects it has on choices relating to higher education and the loss of so much college-ready talent because of the cost. It should also include the financial impact resulting from an under-educated population, one that includes the full array of social and corrective services for an educationally under-served populace.
  2. Then use precisely the same process in evaluating the new model and see which creates a better return on every public dollar spent on on higher education.  If the likely outcome is that under the present system, there is a small or maybe even negative rate of return but under the new paradigm we see a rate of return several times greater than that of the current system, then “sell” it not as a social program but as a far better business proposition for the American taxpayer.  It is easy for some in Congress to dismiss yet another social program but far more problematic to rail against a better rate of return for every dollar of taxpayers’ money.  The lesson is that the best way to create consensus is to frame the issue in terms that likely opponents can understand and appreciate.

Some will say that the plan will cost more and it will in terms of using more tax dollars in the short run but if each dollar spent creates far better returns for the American people and its economy, most business people will urge that we spend more not less anyway.  That’s how every business grows, the better the projected returns, the more money gets happily invested.

When support for our system of higher education makes it actually a better deal for everyone, then and only then can we celebrate another forward step for the nation, the kind that makes this country truly great.

Imagine what it might be like when after this plan for higher education becomes the law of the land Congress and all of us can say, “Look what we did together and we never had to abandon our guiding philosophy in the process!”.  This would be true unless someone’s philosophy included not working with people from the other side of the aisle no matter what.  If that were the case then while they may love the country they don’t think much of democracy.

Imagine too a family with a newborn who when this plan is in place can look at the new, beautiful life that they created and know from day one if the child grows and has a future that may include higher education that parent can afford it regardless of financial status.  Imagine when college officials can be secure in the reality that they enjoy the support of the government and the nation so that they can admit all qualified students and provide aid because of a program of taxpayer support that will allow them to do so within the college’s financial ability to support needy students.  Imagine too, how we will feel as a nation when we know that our system of higher education is economically sound and that incentives are in place for colleges to deliver first-rate instructional programs or lose vital public financial support.  Imagine an older population of citizens who worked hard their entire lives for the promise of comfortable retirement years that allow for travel and visits to grandchildren because they were no longer needlessly impoverished by an unreliable, and costly college funding mechanism.  And it all happened because during the second decade of the 21st century people of good will across the political, ethnic and economic spectra started to reject the adversarial nature of our politics and instead decided to address the nation’s future and put in place a plan that included college for every student with the talent and character to attend and succeed regardless of the economic status of their family.

One can easily recognize that replacing an old system is a daunting challenge, one that does not carry any  guarantees for success but over the years I have learned that while trying and failing is not a good thing…failing to try is worse, much worse.

© Paul Wrubel, 2016
All rights reserved

 

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