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A Decade Later, It’s Time for a Higher Education Act For Students

As a national non-profit organization that represents and is made up of many young adults, it’s not typically our style to take you on a trip down memory lane. But lately, we’ve been talking to young people across the country and asking them think back to when Flo Rida dominated the Billboard 100, Lady Gaga released her first album, and “Breaking Bad” had just premiered. Our destination: 2008, the year our country’s signature law for all things college and financial aid, the Higher Education Act, was last reauthorized.  

So welcome to 2008, where there is no Instagram and no Snapchat. There is no Uber and no WeWork. Avocado toast hasn’t really taken off yet either, but we promise you that’s not about to turn our financial futures upside down and prevent us from buying homes. While Millennials might joke about the simpler times of life without apps, we know 2008 was also when our country was plunged into the depths of the worst economic recession since the Great Depression. This recession and the long recovery period that followed put a permanent mark on our generation. Young adults aged 18 to 34 saw double-digit unemployment rates for almost six years consecutively. And we know that the recession has had lasting impacts on young adults’ financial security, despite a more optimistic picture of late. Millennials have accumulated only half the net wealth of Baby Boomers when they were the same age.

And yet, despite all the ways our country has changed in the last decade to respond technological innovation, the changing workforce, and the Great Recession, one thing has not changed much at all: the laws of our higher education system. The Higher Education Act – the sweeping package of laws that govern Pell Grants, our financial aid system, and the FAFSA, among dozens of other aspects of higher ed – is stuck in 2008. We’re living in an iPhone X world, but the Higher Education Act is still using a Motorola Razr.

Meanwhile, the challenges that college students and graduates now face are dramatically steeper than they were even just ten years ago. In the last 10 years…

  • Tuition and fees at public, four-year colleges have increased 37 percent.
  • The number of student loan borrowers has increased by 50 percent.
  • The total amount of student debt in our country has more than doubled, increasing from $510 billion to $1.3 trillion.
  • The number of delinquent loans – loans that borrowers can’t manage to pay off – has increased by over 300 percent.
  • Racial gaps in degree attainment have widened. The gap between African American students and white students has increased by 3 points, and the gap between Latinx students and white students has increased by 8 points.*

So when word got out Congress was ready to update the Higher Education Act, we were excited. Unfortunately, the House Republican proposal put forward is simply not what students have been waiting an entire decade for. Despite rising student debt, it cuts $14.6 billion dollars from our higher education system, specifically from changing student aid and eliminating loan forgiveness, things students need most. It also doesn’t do anything to incentivize states to invest more of their budgets in higher education, which would transfer the burden of cost off students and address the source of skyrocketing tuition across the country. It also does nothing to meaningfully expand the Pell grant program or to ease the loan burden for struggling borrowers. If we’re going to address those major increases in tuition, debt, and delinquent loans we’ve seen in the last decade, those are the kinds of policies we need – and fast. In fact, the Republican proposal would make it harder to get aid and would eliminate loan forgiveness altogether.

Luckily, there is still time for our lawmakers in the House and the Senate to put forward proposals that will lower the cost of college, decrease student debt, and make your loans easier to pay off. Over the next few months, Young Invincibles will share a series of blog posts, stories, and ways for you to get involved. Together, we can push lawmakers to act in the best interest of students when they revamp our higher ed laws. We need a new Higher Education Act for students. Want to join our #ActForStudents campaign? Sign on here or join us on Twitter and Facebook.


*Young Invincibles analysis of American Community Survey data