The Trump Administration Is Wrong. Students Are Not to Blame for Student Debt | Opinion

Around 16 million undergraduate students will enroll in college this fall. Nearly three in four of them will not have enough money—through cash, grants, scholarships and even student loans—to pay the full cost for that year. And if the Trump administration has its way, that chasm could grow even larger.

This week, the administration released its budget request for the upcoming year—an annual exercise in which the White House asks Congress for an array of policy changes and funding decisions that are often ignored, and sometimes diametrically opposed, by lawmakers. But the budget still matters. It is a formal declaration of the president's priorities. And in this case, those priorities are laced with long-standing and harmful conservative rhetoric that blames students and their families for "overborrowing."

As Republican lawmakers and Trump administration officials tell it, the root cause of the dramatic increase in student debt over the past decade has more to do with students and their families taking on "excessive" loans rather than the excessive price of college. The administration's proposed policies would allow financial aid administrators to decide unilaterally what "excessive" borrowing means and reduce students' loan limits. They would also allow colleges to require burdensome annual loan counseling and would set new, lower caps on loans taken out by parents of undergraduate students and by graduate student borrowers.

Those policies come on top of other efforts by Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to discourage students from borrowing loans—like an "annual student loan acknowledgement" that will require all students to certify they know their cumulative loan debt before accessing a new loan.

The condescending assumption driving these policies is that what students and families need is more information about "better decision-making" through financial literacy. The Trump administration is trying to control the ways in which students spend their often insufficient federal aid dollars over fears that they might use the money for "frivolous" expenses, like housing and food.

Borrowing loans for higher education is not a result of poor financial decision-making; it is the result of the growing price problem students and families face from increasing tuition and living expenses. In 1979, a student could work what amounted to a part-time summer job to pay tuition costs. Now, even working full-time for half a year wouldn't cover tuition—let alone living costs.

While more than two-thirds of undergraduates borrow only as much (or less) than they must pay for tuition and fees, about a third have to borrow more to pay for basic necessities while they're in school. There is no real evidence that students are borrowing for "frivolous" expenses, aside from a few cringeworthy anecdotes. Students are seeking to pay for valid expenses, such as housing, food, books, supplies and transportation, which are necessary for academic success.

Still, the Trump administration and many lawmakers have found it easier to blame students for the debt crisis.

If anything, students need access to more money, not less. And while there is no evidence to suggest that students are "overborrowing," there is evidence to show that students are better off borrowing what they need to succeed in school than not borrowing at all.

A study from researchers at University of Maryland and University of Illinois found that community college students who were offered loans took more credits and had better grades than students who weren't offered any loans, and they were more likely to transfer to a four-year school. They were also twice as likely to graduate within three years with an associate degree. Graduating with debt is far better for most students than not graduating at all.

Betsy DeVos and Donald Trump
Donald Trump looks on as Betsy DeVos speaks at at the DeltaPlex Arena on December 9, 2016, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Drew Angerer/Getty

That's why these proposals focused on arbitrarily capping loans and introducing new counseling requirements to borrow are so concerning. In principle, these ideas make some sense; no one wants borrowers taking on more debt than they can manage to repay. But cutting off access to federal loan aid—without commensurately increasing grant or other aid (the proposed budget from the Trump administration included no increase to the Pell Grant maximum award and would eliminate another grant program for low-income students, for instance)—is a recipe for growing inequality in the current system.

Congress likely will not provide most of the funding levels and policy changes the Trump administration requests. But no one should underestimate how the language around excessive or abusive student loan borrowing—and associated efforts to quash those alleged behaviors—will wind up harming the very students who need these dollars most.

Rachel Fishman is the deputy director for research with New America's Higher Education Program. Clare McCann is the deputy director for federal policy with New America's Higher Education Program.

The views expressed in this article are the writers' own.