An Act in Mediocrity

The reauthorized Higher Education Act does little more than inform

For the next five years, the Higher Education Act of 1965 – which Congress finally reauthorized Friday – will sputter along as a relic of its once radical objective: to break down fiscal barriers in the nation’s higher education institutions. In the meantime, those barriers are reviving and all our politicians are doing is acknowledging their existence.

Tuition costs are exploding. States are allocating less and less of their budgets to universities. The credit market is contracting and the economy is on a bleak downslide. Meanwhile, the college degree, once the epitome of achievement and security, is a mere requirement for a decent job – which is harder to come by these days.

In 2006, the national average for student loan debt upon graduation was $21,100, up eight percent from 2005 . Private loan sales to students, moreover, increased 325 percent in 2006 from 2001 . Sound familiar? New York’s attorney general, Andrew Cuomo, in October called parallels between the student loan and mortgage industries “provocative .”

Essentially, this is the situation with the reauthorization: Congress decided simply to better communicate to students that they’re in trouble. The reauthorization, for instance, would force universities to disclose data about textbooks online so students know the full costs of the course . What’s more, the act will cut the amount of paperwork in half for the financial aid forms that represent, for many students, an indentured servitude.

For its part, Congress increased the maximum Pell Grant amount by roughly 60 percent by 2014 . But that was a necessary, and politically expedient, move, as was the language in the act that attempts to sever ties between university administrators and private lenders.

The current financial crisis for students calls for the Great Society ideals that created the Higher Education Act – not a comically myopic piece of legislation which, while better informing students about an increasingly dismal fiscal situation, does little to change it.