Lawmakers in Washington and Harrisburg seem to believe that the best solution lies in a $1.6 trillion plan to forgive student loans for 43 million borrowers, many of whom never weighed their future earnings against the cost of their four years or more at a college or university.
Fortunately, there is a more immediate, bipartisan, and sustainable solution.
Lawmakers in Harrisburg should embrace a consumer protection framework to solve our state’s student debt crisis, often reported on as “Debt Valley” in The Inquirer.
Degrees granted from institutions in our state should publish income distribution data ranging from two to ten years after graduation provided by the college or university, separated by degree type and academic concentration. This disclosure should be mandated by Pennsylvania law.
Furthermore, higher education institutions should be required to report distribution data for loan amounts and the amount of time that borrowers took to repay their loans.
Law schools have already taken initiative on this kind of transparency. Starting in 2010, law schools began publishing job outcomes after campaigns for increased transparency. Self-reported data from the Law School Transparency Dashboard show law school enrollment closely aligning with industry needs. When prospective students observed high tuition accompanied by lower job prospects, enrollment dropped. In 2018, when the need for lawyers ticked up, yielding better job prospects, enrollment followed suit.
Under our current system, tuition is paid up front allowing universities to operate without liability for a borrower’s debt — even if they carry it for a lifetime. Administrators, as a result, can raise the cost of attendance without penalty or consequence.
This proposal ensures that consumers have access to information necessary to make informed choices, and it ensures that colleges and universities remain accountable. Just like a nutrition label on food, this disclosure informs students of what they are buying. Regardless of a person’s degree selection, we should encourage our young fellows to pursue their dreams, but they should be equipped with a holistic understanding of where their ambitions might lead.
This is especially important for those from disadvantaged communities, such as Black and brown students and first-generation ones, who are more likely to carry a substantially larger loan burden than their counterparts.
In fact, the net worth of college-educated Black households has declined to $8,200, a decrease of nearly $40,000, according to the Wall Street Journal. This trend of student debt negating net assets parallels college-educated Hispanic households as well, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. If colleges were forced to disclose earnings data, would so many seekers of upward mobility find themselves in a race to the bottom?
Pennsylvania has a unique opportunity to set an example for colleges and universities across the nation. Our state has the fourth-most higher education institutions in the country with 157 colleges and universities, is home to an Ivy League institution (the University of Pennsylvania), and is tied with New York and Texas for hosting the second-most public universities.
All of this shows that Pennsylvanians are committed to higher education. But our lawmakers need to go the extra mile.
As the Harrisburg legislature reconvenes this September, lawmakers should adopt greater transparency in higher education as the path for students to make informed, practical career decisions.
John Dominguez is a policy adviser for the Pittsburgh Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and lives in Pittsburgh.