Note: This column by Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie appeared in The Chicago Tribune on Jan. 24, 2020.
As the 2020 election ramps up, student loan debt has emerged as a hot-button issue on the campaign trail, with several presidential hopefuls releasing plans to solve what they are calling a "crisis."
The size of student debt — which has roughly tripled in the last dozen years and now exceeds $1.5 trillion — is undeniably sobering, and it is an especially serious matter for students from low- and middle-income families. Our candidates are right to be talking about it.
But as with other major national issues that have become topics of partisan debate, political rancor and packaged soundbites threaten to upstage the immense amount of energy going into reducing this problem. It obscures how Midwestern common-sense initiatives are showing real results.
At Indiana University, which awarded more than 21,000 degrees last year, nearly half of all bachelor’s degree graduates leave the institution with zero student loan debt, and 82 percent have less than $30,000. Over a recent seven-year period, annual student loan borrowing dropped by more than $138 million, or over 21 percent, and for Indiana resident undergraduates, it fell more than $117 million, or nearly 36 percent.
This real progress is happening at a time when reports of Americans owing more than $100,000 in student loans continue to dominate much of the national media narrative, which can often lead to simplistic and incomplete assertions faulting colleges and universities for how they manage their endowments, enrollments, tuition costs, financial aid and textbook prices.
Missing from this simplistic narrative is how many public Midwestern institutions are hard at work implementing a variety of aggressive but sensible policy measures that are proving successful. These include minimizing tuition increases; reducing operating costs; increasing student financial assistance; promoting on-time graduation; expanding online education; greatly reducing the costs of digital textbooks for students; and introducing comprehensive financial literacy and wellness programs.
Regarding the latter, we are just one of a number of Midwestern institutions, including Ohio State University, the University of Oklahoma and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, that have recently launched innovative financial advising, money management and peer-coaching practices to help students make wise borrowing decisions. Furthermore, bipartisan legislation in Congress would require colleges and universities that accept federal aid to send an annual "debt letter" to every student — a practice that we pioneered in 2012 — estimating their total loan debt and future monthly payments. Issuing that letter to each loan recipient is now the law in Indiana and required of all colleges.
On the policy front, a number of Midwestern and other institutions are deeply engaged at the national level in serious and thoughtful conversations among key stakeholders regarding the future of federal student financial aid. These institutions are talking about ensuring greater accessibility to the high-quality education they provide, increasing the transparency of financial aid information and designing effective strategies to improve student success and help build the knowledgeable and well-trained workforce that our nation needs.
Obviously, there is still a lot of work to be done to prevent the specter of major debt from looming over our best and brightest graduates. But important efforts are taking place. I would urge serious parties to read a recent report from the “Higher Education Committee of 50,” which provided federal lawmakers with recommendations on student aid, access and accountability as they work on reauthorizing the Higher Education Act.
The committee’s recommendations will stand or fall on their own merits. For now, though, they reflect what we need to address the student debt issue — less posturing and more practical solutions.