WASHINGTON — In Congress, both parties agree that college costs are spiraling out of control, but there's not much government can do to control that. What it can control is student aid, and the debate about federal loans raises a familiar disagreement about the role of government. In 2010, when Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress, the federal government cut banks out of the process and started administering all loans directly. Many Republicans favor restoring the private sector's role in issuing federally backed and subsidized loans.
Higher ed also comes with a delicate set of ticking time bombs. Student loan interest rates, capped at 3.4 percent for new subsidized Stafford loans, are set to double July 1, the expiration date for a stopgap Congress passed last year. Pell Grants, the main source of federal aid for low-income students, face the same type of crisis as entitlements like Medicare and Social Security: a cost curve that's become difficult to contain as more people take part.
When it comes to K-12 education, the prospects increase for a tug of war between Obama and Congress.
Lawmakers are more than half a decade overdue to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The Education Department has been copiously granting waivers to No Child Left Behind, the Bush-era iteration of the act, giving states flexibility with performance targets.
There's bipartisan agreement in Congress that the law should be fixed and reauthorized. "While the administration's efforts to grant waivers are helpful for states operating under the tenets of No Child Left Behind, these fixes are temporary and piecemeal," Sen. Tom Harkin, the Democrat who chairs the Senate committee responsible for education, said in an email.
But the Obama administration has shown little desire to put the policy back in lawmakers' hands. Duncan didn't mention reauthorization in a lengthy speech in October laying out his agenda.