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Updated on Thursday, November 8, 2018
From health care to the economy, voters had many concerns in mind as they headed to the polls for this year’s midterm elections.
But one major issue that might not have gotten as much attention in news coverage was the government’s handling of student loans, a subject which impacts 44 million Americans. As our national student debt has exceeded $1.5 trillion, many borrowers are hoping for relief.
But while Democrats call for an expansion of financial aid and forgiveness programs, conservatives warn that increasing aid could be a burden for taxpayers.
Given the election results that gave the Democratic Party a majority in the House of Representatives, we might see them looking to influence the education policies moving forward. Still, they won’t have much hope for passing their own legislation without working out deals with the Republican-led Senate and White House.
On the other hand, a few ballot measures across the country and the presence of some lawmakers with a personal interest in student debt are enough to cast educational debt in a bigger spotlight.
Whether you’re a student, loan borrower or parent preparing for the costs of colleges, find out what the 2018 midterm election results could mean for you.
Democrats to weigh in on education policies
While some races are still too close to call, Democrats have locked in a majority in the House of Representatives, taking the gavel from the Republicans, while the GOP has added to its majority in the Senate.
This shift in the House could mean Democrats have greater influence when it comes to Department of Education policies, particularly those related to for-profit colleges and student loan forgiveness programs.
Critics of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos have accused her of protecting for-profit schools at the expense of students. They have also objected to her efforts to scale back certain Obama-era protections, such as borrower defense to repayment, which discharges loans for defrauded borrowers.
Democrats have sent letters objecting to education policies under the Trump administration, but as the minority, they were unable to conduct oversight of the department. Now that they lead the House, however, Democratic members will likely be active on this front.
“Expect a Democrat-led House, for instance, to conduct hearings, demand documents and press the Trump administration on its appointment of officials with ties to for-profit colleges — and its reversal of Obama-era policies meant to crack down on the industry,” wrote Michael Stratford, education reporter for Politico on Tuesday.
Ally Bernstein, legislative counsel for the Association of Young Americans (AYA) agreed, “The [Democrats will] hold the department’s feet to the fire on its controversial rewrites of rules governing for-profit institutions, including whether federal student loan borrowers are protected from continuing to repay loans if these institutions committed fraud against them.”
The free-college movement shows up at local level
When running for president in 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) supported the movement to provide free public college for all. In 2017, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) proposed a bill that would provide $41 billion a year to states to help eliminate tuition.
While there hasn’t been much progress on the national level, various state politicians have voiced their support for free community college during this midterm election season. For example, Ned Lamont, who won his bid for governor of Connecticut, supports two years of community college for state residents who agree to remain in state following graduation.
In fact, both the Republican incumbent Larry Hogan and his Democratic opponent for the governor’s seat of Maryland, Ben Jealous, proposed expanding Maryland’s free tuition college program, which currently provides no-cost community college to residents. Hogan, who won the race, said he supported expanding the tuition-free program to include four-year institutions.
And it’s not just the state governments. Seattle voters approved a measure to offer two free years of community college for public school students. The move will be funded by a property tax hike which the city predicts will raise over $600 million over several years.
So although the free college movement hasn’t gained much traction nationally, these city- and state-level victories could be signs of changes to come.
Politicians have student debt, too
For some politicians in this election, student loans are a personal issue. According to CNBC, one in 10 current members of Congress are repaying student loans, either for themselves or a family member.
Some of them are also trying to address the issue more broadly. Consider Rep. Tom Reed (R-N.Y.), who was re-elected to the House Tuesday.
“This is an area that affects the futures of so many young men and women, and it’s time to address the issue before it gets even worse,” Reed told Student Loan Hero in an interview earlier this year. “We’re shackling our children and grandchildren to debt if we don’t do something.” (Note: Student Loan Hero and MagnifyMoney are both part of LendingTree.)
Reed introduced a bill this year that would force some universities to use a portion of their endowments to help low- and middle-income students.
And there may be more such elected officials on the way, as millennials join the political arena and move up the ranks of state government.
Natalie Higgins of Massachusetts and Matt Lesser of Connecticut are two re-elected state representatives who have been open about their struggles with student debt.
Higgins, for example, borrowed more than $130,000 to pay for law school.
Lesser, also a student loan borrower, has made student debt a signature issue in his past few years on Connecticut’s state senate. In 2015, he sponsored a “student loan bill of rights,” aimed to make student loan companies follow consumer protection rules.
Committed to easing the burden for student borrowers, both Higgins and Lesser introduced a state bill requiring student loan servicers to abide by consumer protections.
“Having representatives who have experienced or are still experiencing student loans and understand the burdens and problems is really important,” said Ben Brown, founder of AYA.
Student loan legislation remains murky
With divided affiliations in Congress, competing visions for higher education from the Republicans and Democrats look less likely to become law.
Late last year, Republicans proposed the PROSPER Act, which would reduce regulation of for-profit schools, limit student loan forgiveness and increase funding for community colleges and apprenticeships, among other things.
While the Republicans could pass PROSPER during the “lame duck” session before the new Democratic-majority House sits, any overhaul of the student loan system by the new Congress would require a deal between the two sides.
Student loans have become a political issue
With millions of Americans dealing with student loans, and with the cost of college higher than ever, it’s not surprising that higher education issues are increasingly part of the political conversation.
Now that Democrats have won a majority in the House, the current push to roll back Obama-era protections is likely to come under a lot more scrutiny. Likewise, previous plans for major changes to student debt through the PROSPER Act might need bipartisan consensus to move forward.
As a student loan borrower, make sure to stay informed about any changes to federal programs, such as income-driven repayment or loan forgiveness. Also know that even though the election is over, you can still make your voice heard. Contacting your elected officials is easy and can have an impact if enough people take action.
Even if these debates feel far away, they could have a very real effect on your life and finances.
This report originally appeared on Student Loan Hero. Both MagnifyMoney and Student Loan Hero are part of LendingTree.