Although you would not know it from congressional actions nor from the fiscal record of the federal government under both Republican and Democratic administrations (the national debt rose over $8 trillion under Donald Trump, but it also rose as much under Barack Obama and about two-thirds as much under George W. Bush), our debt-laden nation with nearly bankrupt social insurance programs simply cannot responsibly afford new expensive initiatives in higher education. But a few no- or even negative-cost Fed-initiated reforms would enormously improve higher education.

1) Eliminate or put a 20-question limit on the FAFSA form. Lots of low income kids simply do not fill out the complicated federal student financial assistance form with well over 100 questions, lowering their college access. Reform has been and is promised. I attended a meeting with the Secretary of Education to do it in 2008! Just DO IT NOW—give the Department of Education 90 days to implement it or daily lose $100 million in funding after the deadline.

2) The Feds fund a voucher-like program, Pell Grants, but give the money directly to schools, not to student recipients. Bring some consumer sovereignty to higher ed by directly giving low income kids vouchers usable only at accredited colleges. Limit vouchers to four years and insist on minimum levels of academic performance. Private scholarships usually have minimum academic expectations associated with them, why not for public ones?

3) Require colleges to have “skin in the game” by making them co-sign on federal student loans, making them partially financially liable when a school has a large body of students who are delinquent on their loan obligations.

4) Make the adoption of the Chicago Principles of campus free expression a requirement for a school or its students to receive federal funds. Deny federal funds, including research grants, to schools suppressing nonviolent forms of expression that are healthy in promoting robust academic discourse.

5) More generally, require schools accepting federal aid to follow traditional standards of due process in major campus disciplinary proceedings—a right to counsel, a right to cross-examine witnesses, the separation of those judging cases from those prosecuting them, the insistence on high standards of proof (”clear and convincing” evidence), etc.

6) Compel colleges receiving federal funds to provide much more information to students, parents and the public about what goes on at the school: Are the students learning? Are the faculty engaged in teaching? Are recent graduates prospering in the real world? Are the students happy, and if not, why? All reports of accrediting agencies should be completely public. Several in Congress in both parties have proposed forms of this type of legislation. Stop pontificating and start acting.

7) End grade inflation. Federal survey data suggest that the typical college student spends under 30 hours a week on all academic matters—attending class, studying and reading, writing papers, preparing for exams, etc. Since they are in school typically about 30 weeks a year, they spend less than 900 hours annually on academics—less than eighth graders. In 1960, they spent nearly 50 percent more time. Grade inflation is one major cause for the change. End it. Freshmen grade point averages, even at the Ivy League schools, should be no higher than a “B” norm, and a maximum undergraduate GPA for all students should be less than 3.2 to receive federal dollars.

8) Prohibit legacy admissions. Johns Hopkins University did something noble—it ended preferential treatment for children of alumni or other students with influence (those making multi-million dollar gifts). Hillsdale College can do whatever it wants—it takes no federal money, nor do its students. But nearly every other school is in some sense “public,” and admission should be based exclusively on merit—not parental background, gender, race, ethnicity, etc.

Alas, this is not the finest hour for American democracy, and the prospects for such a comprehensive, sensible, non-costly reform is zero or, if possible, less. Terry Hartle and his army of lobbyists at the American Council of Education and others would squelch this in a nanosecond, but it is an aspirational goal that if embraced by the public might ultimately get approval from the Gang of 535 (Congress) and the Administration.