Alan Simpson and Erskine Bowles, of the famed Simpson-Bowles commission (officially the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform) that the Obama administration tapped to generate ideas to reduce federal budget deficits, are out with a new wide-ranging proposal. Titled A Bipartisan Path Forward to Securing America’s Future, the report was published by the Moment of Truth Project, which is itself affiliated with the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, an organization previously housed at New America.
The report includes higher education reforms that they say will create $35 billion in savings through 2023. These reforms mirror some of the ideas outlined earlier this year in the Education Policy Program’s report, Rebalancing Resources and Incentives in Federal Student Aid. Unlike the latest Moment of Truth Project report, though, the New America Foundation report argues that the savings these proposals generate should be reinvested fully in more effective and higher-quality postsecondary education aid. (The Path Forward proposal reinvests most, but not all of the savings into higher education aid.)
One way that Path Forward finds big savings is through eliminating the in-school interest rate subsidy, which defers accrued interest on the borrowers loans until after graduation. This is basically identical to New America’s proposal to eliminate Subsidized Stafford loans.
According to the Moment of Truth Project report, the subsidy is poorly targeted and that money can be better spent by funding the Pell Grant program. The authors argue that income-based repayment is a far better benefit to struggling borrowers, something we made the case for in Rebalancing Resources and Incentives. The deficit reduction report writes:
Another $15 to $20 billion could be generated through a number of more targeted changes such as adopting the President's proposal to reform Perkins loans, lowering Guaranty Agency Compensation Rehabilitation loans, repealing Grad PLUS loans, equalizing loans for dependent and independent students, creating a two-tiered income-based repayment system, and reducing or discontinuing funding for underperforming for-profit schools.
The authors go on to note that such reforms would fix the Pell Grant funding cliff, something we also accomplished in the Education Policy Program report. The authors further note that "by providing mandatory funding to cover much of the projected shortfall in the Pell Grant program, this option would limit the pressure on the Appropriations Committee" to make deep cuts in discretionary programs or to decrease the benefits Pell provides. In 2014, Congress was pleasantly surprised by a Congressional Budget Office estimate that showed a surplus had accumulated in the program over the past several years, permitting lawmakers to flat-fund the program at 2013 pre-sequester levels. Still, costs of the Pell program are expected to increase rapidly over the next several years, demanding a long-term solution.
The report also endorses a proposal first offered by the Education Policy Program’s Jason Delisle. Recently highlighted both in President Obama's fiscal year 2014 budget proposal and in a bill proposed by Republican Senators Coburn, Burr, and Alexander, the plan would interest rates on federal student loans to the rate of 10-year Treasury notes, plus a mark-up. As the commission notes, this addresses the interest rate problem more gradually than a bump from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent – and it would permanently resolve the annual debate over setting the rates by creating a long-term policy subject to the market, not lawmakers’ whims and political interests.
In the Education Policy Program paper Rebalancing Resources and Incentives in Federal Student Aid, we recommend nearly all of these fixes as part of a larger reform to make federal student aid more equitable and rational. And we did this in a budget-neutral way – that is, we used savings found in some programs to increase funding for other programs, or to create completely new ones. While the new Simpson-Bowles report would use some of the savings to fund the looming Pell Grant program shortfall, the authors would also redirect a portion of the savings to deficit reduction.
Our proposal included a broad array of reform proposals, covering loans, grants, tax expenditures, transparency, and other federal aid issues, and it is meant to be seen as an entire package, not a menu of options, because each component of aid affects the others. We stand by that belief, but we are pleased to see other groups arrive at the same conclusions that we did in reforming the federal student aid system: Policymakers can better spend the significant resources they have already committed to federal student aid programs to benefit students, taxpayers, and other education stakeholders.