Bipartisan alternative education bill has Philly-region sponsors

Listen 5:00
U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Bucks (Emma Lee/WHYY)

U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Bucks (Emma Lee/WHYY)

After abandoning plans to end the tax deduction for student loans, Republicans in the U.S. House are moving forward with a highly partisan proposal that would revamp the federal government’s student loan programs.

Dubbed the PROSPER Act, it’s intended to simplify the student loan process by consolidating some confusing government loan programs while also removing some regulations. The bill also calls for doing away with the decade-old Public Service Loan Forgiveness program that wipes out college debt for public servants after they put in 10 years on the job.

Republican U.S. Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick of Bucks County opposes that move by his party.

“I think that would be ill-advised. It would send the wrong message,” he said. “We need to be doing the opposite, we need to encourage kids to go into those professions.”

Fitzpatrick not only opposes that provision, he’s also pushing a bill to strengthen the program that pays off the debt of public workers — while also closing a loophole that has made some public workers think they were enrolled in the program while they weren’t.

“Now more than ever, we need people entering the public service professions,” he said. “We need school teachers, we need social workers, people in the military, we need to encourage our students to enter these professions.

“The only way we can encourage that is give them assistance with their loans repayment. It’s really important … I think it’s a great investment in our country.”

But Fitzpatrick does support some portions of the GOP bill to change the Higher Education Act. It’s important that the legislation promotes job training and apprenticeship programs, he said.

“It’s incredibly important, in fact that’s the biggest piece of this puzzle. We have over 6 million unfilled jobs in this country due to in large part to the skills gap,” Fitzpatrick said.

In the past few weeks, Fitzpatrick visited a sheet metal factory in South Philadelphia and talked about encouraging training for jobs that are a good-paying  alternative to college.

“These kids are starting at 18-19 years old, they are engaging in a five-year apprenticeship program, they are making about $70,000 in the apprenticeship program, after they graduate, they are making six figures with no college debt at all,” Fitzpatrick said. “The worst situation we can put our kids in is having them graduate with mountains of debt and bleak job opportunities.

“It’s a terrible way for them to start their life.”

A mixed bag

The proposal Fitzpatrick is floating also has the support of Democratic U.S. Rep. Brendan Boyle of Philadelphia — who is still paying off his student loans.

“And [I] will be for another approximately 15 years,” said Boyle. “We have the highest amount of student loan debt in the history of our country. It now dwarfs all other sorts of personal debt.”

But Boyle doesn’t like the other provisions in the new GOP bill, such as how it helps out for-profit colleges that have been accused of saddling students with tens of thousands of dollars in debt without training them for real jobs.

It also makes no sense to take away the incentive for bright students to enter public service, Boyle said.

“The focus should be on how do we reduce that debt, how do we make college more affordable. Instead Republican leadership has actually come up with a bill that would take a bad situation and make it worse,” he said. “I don’t think anyone believes that those who are in public service — whether they are teachers or firefighters or whatever capacity they may be serving— I don’t think anyone thinks they are being paid too much.”

The GOP bill also eliminates the federal program that offers grants to undergraduate and graduate students who agree to teach in areas of national need, such as science and math. Boyle called that a “lose-lose” for Pennsylvania where talented math and science teachers are needed but debt-burdened graduates are forced to see more lucrative jobs.

“Specifically, in Pennsylvania, we have more student loan debt than any other state in the country. So Pennsylvania actually is more at risk from this legislation than any other state,” he said.

“We also happen to have some high-caliber but very expensive colleges and universities. They too will suffer as a result of this legislation,” Boyle said.

Republican U.S. Rep. Ryan Costello, who represents parts of several counties west of Philadelphia, is also a sponsor of the effort to protect and beef up the Public Service Loan Forgiveness law.

“It’s important because we need people who go to college, who incur debt — and are still willing to go into the types of careers that don’t compensate you the same way that careers in the private sector do,” Costello said.

Costello says the bipartisan coalition of Pennsylvania lawmakers will be pushing the proposal intensely in the New Year.

“We’re looking into next year for something …on this to happen. Everything right now is tax, tax, tax,” Costello said.

A number of academic institutions and higher education associations oppose the Republican House bill, so they’re looking to a bipartisan effort in the Senate to materialize. It’s not clear if the bipartisan bill supported by lawmakers from the Philadelphia region will attract enough support to compete with the main bill.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.