Midterm Results: The Big Muddy Road to Higher Education

Midterm Results: The Big Muddy Road to Higher Education

By now, you know the net result in the midterm elections. The Senate remains controlled by Republicans. Congress, on the other hand, shifted into Democratic leadership. Some governorships and state houses leaned blue, as well. Rural areas remained highly conservative, urban areas were more progressive, while the suburbs pushed a small blue wave. Though votes are still being recounted in some tight races, experts are making predictions about how these results will affect policies concerning student loan debt.

DOE Under Increased Scrutiny

Department of Education (DOE) Secretary Betsy DeVos spent two years scaling back Obama-era protections, especially for for-profit colleges. This includes weakening rules to hold colleges accountable for the ability of their students to repay their student loans. Though encouraged by the President, the regulatory changes have faced scrutiny in state and federal courts. Now, Democrats will most likely demand documents and press DOE for its appointments of officials with ties to for-profit colleges. From a Republican perspective, this could result in less regulation and more educational choice. For Democrats this gives students more protections against unscrupulous colleges.

Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act

The Higher Education Act was first signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965. Reauthorization of the bill has been on the Senate back burner for the last two years. Unfortunately, the election will most likely only make things more mired. Tensions in the Senate on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee between Lamar Alexander, R-TN, and Patty Murray, D-WA, were already high. Democrats now have agenda-setting power in the House. Their broad outline for higher education runs counter to Republican aims. The Act may remain extended, but without reauthorization. Republicans did not have the votes to reauthorize it when they had power. And Democrats may gamble that 2020 will bring an end to the current administration. They might decided to reauthorize and make broader changes then. 

Prosper? Or, Aim Higher?

Last year, Republicans proposed the PROSPER Act which would reduce regulation of for-profit schools, limit student loan forgiveness, and increase funding for community colleges and apprenticeships. Democrats have proposed the Aim Higher Act which would expand the Public Service Loan Forgiveness program and increase Pell Grants. Republicans could pass PROSPER during the lame duck session prior to Democratic control of Congress. But, if they don’t, deal making would require common ground which appears to have shrunk, if that is even possible.

“Ello, Gov’nor!”

Races for governorship of Ohio and Wisconsin will most likely have significant impact on higher education. Ohio Democratic candidate, Richard Cordray, lost his race against Republican candidate, Mike DeWine, despite running on his record of being chief of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Voters did not endorse Cordray who aggressively sued for-profit colleges and questioned colleges making deals with particular banks for student debit cards. On the other hand, Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, lost to Democratic rival Tony Evers. Evers was highly critical of Walker for severely cutting spending for the state’s public universities and technical schools. Wisconsin voters did not endorse Walker’s austerity, which lowered taxes but increased the burden of tuition on families and students, resulting in increased student loan debt.

Narrower Opportunities for Deal Making?

Midterm election predictions suggest increased gridlock, with somehow narrower opportunities for deal making. College students may not see any real change for at least another two years even though they came out to vote. Though voter numbers are not yet finalized, early evidence shows students voted in higher numbers than in previous midterm elections. Participation in Alachua County, where the University of Florida is located, jumped from half of registered voters in 2014 to 63.6 percent of voters. Polling places in Monroe County, home to the Indiana University of Bloomington, ran out of pre-printed ballots. Officials there had to rush more ballots to the polls after an unprecedented turnout. On some college campuses, shuttles bussed students to polling places. Across the country, students staged walkouts designed to get young voters to voting locations.

College students, and those who have moved on from higher education but are overwhelmed with student loan debt, remain stuck. The midterm results seems to predict more muck, more mire, as the wheels of higher education bog down along the big muddy road to higher education.