Several of the candidates running for the Democratic nomination for president have introduced plans to reform higher education. There’s Sen. Bernie Sanders’ free public college for all plan. There’s also former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s debt-free college idea. But so far the many, many politicians running for the Republican nomination have kept quiet about the issue.

But now Sen. Marco Rubio has introduced his own platform for college reform. How’s it look? Well, it’s not terrible. But it wouldn’t do much to fix the cost problem. According to this article in the Miami Herald:

The Florida Republican derided existing colleges and universities as running a “cartel” more interested in blocking new competitors than embracing low-cost ways to teach students. As president, Rubio said, “within my first 100 days, we will bust this cartel by establishing a new accreditation process that welcomes low-cost, innovative providers.”

Rubio has also proposed requiring universities to tell students in advance how much money they can expect to make with a given degree and allowing corporations to essentially pay for a student’s tuition in return for a percentage of the student’s paycheck after graduation. Elsewhere in his remarks, Rubio called for cutting the corporate-tax rate to 25 percent and rewriting immigration laws to give priority to workers needed in the economy rather than to family reunification.

His description of the way the “cartel” operates is probably true, more or less, but the Rubio ideas won’t do much to promote “low-cost ways to teach students.” And cost is the major problem in higher education in this country. Tuition inflation could just keep right on going up under the Rubio plan.


Here at the Monthly we’ve argued in favor of a few of the Rubio reforms. More transparency about college outcomes and trying to tie federal financial aid to outcomes seem promising. Such reforms would encourage colleges to improve graduation rates and career placement because they could lose federal money if they do particularly poorly. And if potential students knew that a college they were considering had a 10 percent graduation rate and the average former student earned only, say, $28,000 a year, they’d be reluctant to attend the school, forcing the institution to better.

That’s great, but it’s only part of what needs major reform. As far as the expense of college goes, the Rubio’s plan looks pretty weak. According to this Reuters piece:

Rubio… wants students to be allowed to repay loans based on their postgraduate incomes. He also wants to allow investors to pay a student’s tuition in return for a percentage of the student’s income after graduation.

But students can already repay loans based on their postgraduate incomes. Americans have been able to do that since the George W. Bush administration.

And that let “investors pay tuition in return for a percentage of income after graduation”? Well that’s likely to have a pretty limited impact on society. That’s because it will only attract investors interested in funding those guaranteed to earn high incomes. For most college students, those people studying to be teachers or salesmen, private investors aren’t going to do anything for them. They’d still mostly fund college using federally-backed loans and parental savings.

The really notable change proposed by Rubio represents a common policy proposal of conservatives. This is where we get into trouble. According to an article at Bloomberg Politics

The existing university system is controlled by what amounts to a “cartel of existing colleges and universities, which use their power over the accreditation process to block innovative, low-cost competitors from entering the market,” Rubio said….

Rubio… said he’d “bust this cartel” by establishing a new accreditation process more welcoming to low-cost, innovative providers.

“This would expose higher education to the market forces of choice and competition, which would prompt a revolution driven by the needs of students — just as the needs of consumers drive the progress of every other industry in our economy,” he said.

The “more competition and market forces will fix education” refrain is familar to Rubio supporters. Rubio already proposed a version of this a year ago.

It’s an interesting idea but we’ve tried it before, several times. The removal of “barriers to entry” to “open up competition” was the reason the Bush administration was so sympathetic to for-profit colleges, and changed regulations to make it easier for such businesses to operate and expand. And the result was that millions of people went into massive debt to attend schools that no one respected and where they didn’t learn the things they needed to get good jobs.

Chile also tried a capitalist competition plan for its education system during the Pinochet dictatorship. And the result? The country’s schooling got a lot more expensive and quality got worse. The poor ended up going into debt to attend low-quality for-profit schools they saw advertised on buses. And the rich kept going to the same schools they’d always attended, which predated the education reforms.

So why would this Rubio plan work out any better?

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer