Marco Rubio, the son of a bartender and the first in his family to go to college, just finished repaying more than $125,000 in student-loan debt from the University of Florida and the University of Miami law school.
Now, Rubio, a Florida senator and a rising star in the Republican Party, is embracing a bipartisan bill that would force colleges to give students information about costs and career prospects.
After a decade of resistance from universities, Congress is poised to take on college prices amid a groundswell of anger about tuition outpacing inflation and family incomes, leaving borrowers with $1 trillion in debt. Politicians from both parties are seeking to compel colleges to tell students how much they could be expected to earn from their degrees, spell out fees and debt in plain English, reward schools that keep tuition affordable -- and punish those that don’t.
“We’re at the early stages of a transformation -- 10 years from now, higher education won’t look the same,” said Richard Vedder, an Ohio University economics professor who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. “There are millions of people feeling the pain of student debt. When that number gets big enough, it starts to permeate the public consciousness.”
The latest round of bipartisan bills -- unusual in a divided Congress -- will spark a lobbying battle with colleges, an industry with about $500 billion in annual revenue, 4 million employees and 20 million students. Higher education institutions spend about $100 million a year to influence politicians, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a Washington- based group that tracks such outlays.
In 2003 and 2008, colleges beat back other cost-control measures, dismissing them as Soviet-style price controls and meddling with academic freedom and student privacy.
Politicians and the media are perpetuating “a collision of myths” about student loans, said David Warren, president of the Washington-based National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents 1,000 private institutions.
The average student graduates from a private college with about $30,000 in debt, a manageable amount given they can expect to earn a $44,000 salary, he said.
“Most students are coming out with indebtedness equal to the cost of the first car they buy,” said Warren, former president of Ohio Wesleyan University. He said there may be a legislative “rush to judgment” in trying to curb costs.