Even with American higher education’s need for reform, our system is the world’s envy. This is partly because of the diversity of institutions students in the United States can benefit from, including prestigious, world-class universities and research centers. For a privileged few, success at an elite school can open doors to service in the halls of Congress, the Supreme Court, and the inner sanctum of the White House. These graduates often land coveted positions at Fortune 500 companies, investment banks, and tech startups.
That’s why policymakers should be wary of proposals limiting access to federal student loans to students from low- and middle-income families who go to elite colleges. The authors of the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act and similar policy proposals that seek to expand access to workforce programs should be particularly mindful of opening opportunities for one group of students while limiting them for others. By targeting wealthy institutions subject to the so-called “endowment tax,” some elected representatives seek to pressure well-endowed schools such as Harvard and Stanford, but also Grinnell College and the University of Notre Dame, to spend more of their resources on need-based financial aid, which truly would benefit more students.
But without careful thought, well-intended proposals can do more harm than good. Regardless of the merit of broadening the availability of federal student aid for short-term training, penalizing students not born into wealth and privilege to generate revenue for the government and offset the cost of other policies would be counterproductive for us as a society. It also might perversely undermine lawmakers’ efforts to push these institutions to spend more endowment assets to support students who otherwise could not afford to attend. For example, many of these colleges might restrict access to students who lack the means to attend without borrowing instead of offering them scholarships and other forms of institutional financial aid.
Denying federal student loans to high-achieving students from low- and middle-income families—who often must borrow to finance life-changing economic mobility—simply because schools with sizable endowments admitted them seems an unfair consequence. These types of policy proposals can harm students. The size of a university’s endowment and how administrators spend said funds are not within the control of students who have worked so diligently to secure these limited spots. The pending legislation could cost about 64,000 students access to federal student loans by one estimate, further reducing the racial and ethnic diversity of elite colleges.
I am a staunch advocate of affordable college options and robust financial aid for students from low-income families. I am not advocating for more student loan debt. And I am not defending elite higher education institutions that could easily share more of their wealth to educate financially challenged students.
I simply assert that we all come out ahead when these students’ perspectives are represented in “The Room Where It Happens,” to paraphrase Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hit musical Hamilton. Yet, they are less likely to find themselves in these rooms when they cannot find a way to pay the cost of college.
Rather than restricting access to elite colleges—and, as a result, the halls of power—we must focus on creating policy solutions that make these colleges more diverse and less racially and socioeconomically homogenous.
Lawmakers are sending a message, which we elect them to do. But they should hit pause when policy changes inadvertently hurt students, including graduate students from backgrounds who are most likely to rely on loans. Without access to federal student loans, academic strivers may be forced to forgo the economic mobility that elite education offers. Or they might take out high-interest private loans that lack the protections of federal loans—that is if they can even qualify for private loans.
American higher education’s strength is that it offers an array of programs and institutions. Students should have real choices. Let’s expand options for everyone and not unfairly curb the dreams of some.
This article was originally published in Forbes.
Michelle Asha Cooper, Ph.D., is vice president for public policy at Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all.