Tapping Relationships to Shine a Light on Student Debt | The Bell Policy Center

Tapping Relationships to Shine a Light on Student Debt

Date: May 10, 2017
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Sometimes, the right answer during a legislative session isn’t to run a bill. Instead, it’s to rely on relationships built over the years, and to work collaboratively in moving our priorities forward. That was the case this session with efforts by the Bell and the Fair Lending for a Thriving Colorado coalition to increase the transparency of student loan debt information for Colorado students and families.

Student loan debt, and the negative consequences that unmanageable debt can cause, remain serious concerns in Colorado and the nation. Part of the problem is that students and families do not have easy access to a single source for the transparent, comprehensive, and comparable student debt-related information they need to make good decisions regarding the broad range of postsecondary education options available to them. This information is critical for their decision-making because research shows that loan debt outcomes — including average amount of federal loan debt, loan repayment rates, and loan default rates — can vary dramatically among the state’s public, private nonprofit, and for-profit institutions. In fact, a recent study showed that students at Colorado’s four-year for-profit colleges have significantly worse outcomes on all of these measures than their peers at Colorado public and private nonprofit institutions.

To address this need, we held a series of meetings with staff from the Colorado Department of Higher Education to discuss a potential bill for this legislative session. Based on our initial conversations, I developed an outline for a draft bill to help guide our continuing dialog. The core of the bill was the creation of a Colorado-based online tool, resource, or website for students and families where transparent institution-by-institution information specific to federal student loan debt could be easily accessed and compared. The department’s input and insights were crucial in this effort, since they would be the state agency responsible for implementing the bill’s requirements if it were to be introduced and passed.

Our discussions the department staff were very collaborative, positive and productive. I believe this was possible, at least in part, because of the strong working relationships that I have been fortunate to develop with them over the years, both through my participation on behalf of the Bell as a key non-institutional voice in various statewide postsecondary policy initiatives, and through my advocacy on a broad range of college affordability, access, and student success issues. In short, I believe that — although often overlooked — knowing each other and trusting each other’s interests and intentions is a fundamental component in successful policy change.

Ultimately, our discussions led us to two important insights and agreements. First, we agreed that legislation was not necessary to move forward on our most important goals. As a result, we did not introduce our student debt transparency bill this year. Second, we agreed that increased transparency is indeed a mutually shared priority. Based on that agreement, we will be working with the department on specific approaches to create more transparency for students and families in the year ahead. If it turns out later that legislation would be helpful, we can always follow that path. Either way, it will be a decision and a direction built on the power of relationships.