What Does Obama’s Student Aid Bill of Rights Really Even Do?

U.S. President Barack Obama speaks at Sempra U.S. Gas & Power's Copper Mountain Solar 1 facility, the largest photovoltaic solar plant in the United States on March 21, 2012 in Boulder City, Nevada. Obama is on a four-state tour promoting his energy policies. (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

Ethan Miller/Getty Images

President Barack Obama spoke with the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta on Tuesday about the importance of education and his latest Student Aid Bill of Rights, a memorandum he signed in the Oval Office that same day for an executive action improving the effectiveness of “how the federal government interacts with students when it comes to student loans.”

He went into more detail on what that means specifically during his talk in Georgia, first outlining past reforms on interest rates and loan payment caps, then moving on to what he has planned for the future. In the past, he’s talked about making the first two years of college free, but that’s not currently where the country is at. His plan at present is more limited, and has to do with how communicative, responsive, and accountable lenders are to their customers. This includes both the federal government and financial companies. “We’re going to require that the businesses that service your loans provide clear information about how much you owe, what your options are for repaying it, and if you’re falling behind, help you get back in good standing with reasonable fees on a reasonable timeline,” said Obama.

Throughout the talk, he emphasized time and time again just how important a college education, and education in general, is to America’s youth. This is not new subject matter for the president, but it is further evidence of just how different the two parties view the issues today. This week has already had ad nauseum examples of what issues the two parties differ on, but this latest action on education opens the door for one more strong comparison. Obama addressed the budget being discussed in Congress currently, saying that so far drafts didn’t look promising on the education funding front. “It would allow states to make even deeper cuts into school districts that need the most support, [and] send even more money to the most well-off school districts,” said Obama. “We’ve got to be working to make sure every child gets a quality education, every student can afford college.” If anything can summarize his argument, that last part is probably it.

But other politicians are arguing that a college education isn’t everything it’s cut out to be, at least, in terms of the classic four-year degree. Marco Rubio spoke recently on his goals for changing education and how to keep America competitive. “Globalization is real. We are now in competition with dozens of other countries,” said Rubio of America’s business environment.

He added that part of making the U.S. a stronger player is improving the education system, not just at the starting level by ending the Common Core, but also by changing how we view college. Specifically, he de-emphasized a four-year degree, arguing that “some of the best jobs require more than high school, traditional high school, but less than four years of college.” He acknowledged that this route still mattered for some, but said he considers the job market an open doorway for “vocational careers” like “plumber, electricians, welders,” and so on. 

Then there’s Jeb Bush, another 2016 contender alongside Rubio. Both he and Hillary Clinton spoke in favor of college education at a talk in 2014, and on the need to help keep it an option for those less fortunate. “Higher education in America has a growing affordability problem while billions in the developing world struggle with accessibility,” he said, according to the Washington Post, adding that technology could play a role in helping foreign and native students in America afford college. “Exporting U.S. post-secondary education to global consumers at scale can help really resolve both issues simultaneously. Expanding access through technology can bring down the cost of delivery at home and abroad.”

Clinton, on the other hand, said a number of things reminiscent of both Rubio and Obama, supporting the need to keep college affordable as a major political goal, with emphasis on mathematics and the sciences. Yet she also said that the U.S. should “redefine higher education” in order to make technical and vocational schooling available to prospective workers more easily.

Bush has received a great deal of attention for his ideas about education, but most of those have been concentrated at the primary and secondary level, and he has been particularly critical of districts and public schools, and controversially — amongst his own party — supportive of the Common Core. In 2014, he helped host the Globalization of Higher Education Conference alongside Governor Jim Hunt in Dallas. The idea that students must get their education from American universities is limiting, according to the idea of globalized education, and students can benefit from a strong education from institutions located all over.

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