With college tuition costs at an all-time high, Demos, a D.C.-based public policy organization, recently proposed a debt-free college initiative. "The Affordable College Compact" calls for state and federal partnership in higher education with the goals of substantially increasing public investment in higher education and reducing student debt.
In the current job market, a college degree continues to have tremendous value. As the New York Times noted in 2014, college graduates make 98 percent more per hour than people without a degree, and not obtaining a college degree costs about half a million dollars. Demos notes that "nearly two-thirds of all new jobs in the next 6 years will require some training beyond high school, and 35 percent will require at least a bachelor's degree."
Despite its value, the cost of a public college education has risen as state and federal investment in education has declined. Inflation-adjusted tuition and fees have increased 117 percent at public four-year institutions and 62 percent at two-year schools over the last two decades. Meanwhile, the average debt accumulated by students at public schools has increased by almost a third over the past decade. Not surprisingly, the debt load is heaviest for first-generation students, low- and middle-income students and students of color.
Demos intimates the consequences of college becoming less affordable are disastrous. The United States is only 12th in the world for college attainment among 25-34 year olds (we are first for those over 65). The gap in college graduation rates by race and class are widening. Student debt is an increasing drag on the economy as it reduces household formation and homeownership. The risks of delinquency and default are high for those who graduate with degrees, and even higher for the 29 percent of borrowers who drop out.
In response to this crisis, the Affordable College Compact proposes the federal government leverage funds to ensure that poor, working class and middle-class students can attend college debt-free. States would be required to treat higher education as a public good (which Demos defines as ensuring that tuition revenue does not exceed revenue appropriated) and in return would be eligible for 20 percent or 60 percent matching federal grants for every dollar they spent on higher education, depending on their level of commitment. States increasing their commitment over time would be eligible for an additional 40 percent match.
Demos' estimate is that the Affordable College Compact would cost $29.5 billion if all 26 currently eligible states (those who meet the public good requirement) participated at their current funding levels and increased funding by 1.4 percent. Of course, these initial estimates would rise as more states and students respond to federal incentives, and it remains uncertain whether states, which are still recovering from the Great Recession, are prepared to shoulder these costs. However, this budget is still less than the federal government invests in Pell Grants, less than it invests in tax-based student aid and far less than the Department of Defense's budget of $496 billion.
Debt-free education is not as radical as it might seem. Countries like Germany, Denmark, England, and Australia have all deemed education worthy of investment at approximately these levels. Whether we conceive of it as a public good or not, Americans need to consider making a similar investment. Kudos to Demos for sketching out one way to accomplish it.
Isaac Bowers is Associate Director for Law School Engagement & Advocacy, overseeing the Student Debt, Student Engagement and Law School Relations programs. He was previously responsible for the organization's educational debt relief initiatives. In that capacity, he wrote a weekly blog for U.S. News; conducted monthly webinars for a wide range of audiences; advised employers, law schools and professional organizations; and worked with Congress and the Department of Education on Federal legislation and regulations. Prior to joining Equal Justice Works, he was a Fellow at Shute, Mihaly & Weinberger LLP in San Francisco, where he represented citizen groups and local agencies in environmental litigation and land use and planning issues. Isaac received his J.D. from New York University School of Law.
Lauren Hunter is a Communications Consultant for Equal Justice Works, and a full-time Ph.D. student in the Department of Communication at the University of Maryland. She studies rhetoric and public address with a focus on rights and public policy.
By Jeff Selingo
In a piece he wrote for The Washington Post recently, Hunter Rawlings, the president of the Association of American Universities and a former president of Cornell University and the University of Iowa, argued that Americans should stop treating college like a commodity. Purchasing a college degree is not like buying a car or a television, he wrote. Rather, the value of higher education is in what students discover through this exploratory period in their life. Much of what they get out of college is the effort they put into it.
Rawlings is absolutely right about the intrinsic value of higher education in the serendipitous paths that students take: the majors they never knew existed, the professors who become their mentors, and the diversity of classmates they meet. But the blame for turning college into a commodity is not the fault of the public, lawmakers, or the media; that rests mostly on the shoulders of the colleges themselves.
[Read Rawlings: College is not a commodity, stop treating it like one.]
Here are three reasons why:
1. For decades, higher education has promoted the personal economic value of higher education.
Every three years, the College Board produces a slick report called Education Pays, which outlines the benefits of higher education. The first half of the report focuses exclusively on the economic benefits of a college degree, with the opening pages all about the individual benefits of higher earnings during a person’s lifetime. Only in the second half does the report discuss the positive outcomes of a degree on levels of voting, civic engagement, and improvements in health and obesity.
Colleges also have pushed the personal economic benefits of a degree in the past decade as they persuaded more students to take on loan debt and greater amounts of it to finance increasingly larger tuition bills.
In recent years, however, as the data on career outcomes improved and students and parents could search salaries of graduates by school and major, on web sites like Payscale and state databases like the one Virginia runs, did higher-education leaders suddenly begin to think that earnings were too narrow of a measure. After all, they could no longer ride the coattails of national averages, which obscure the value of individual schools and make everyone look good.
2. Students are not solely responsible for their success. The college does matter.
Rawlings argued that “the value of a degree depends more on the student’s input than on the college’s curriculum.” Not always. It depends on how you’re measuring success whether the student makes the college or the college makes the student.
When the primary measure of a degree’s value is actually graduating, then getting the right match between a prospective student and a college is what matters most, something I learned during research for my book College (Un)Bound: The Future of Higher Education and What It Means for Students. And in making that match, colleges are the more important player.
It’s called “undermatching,” a phenomenon I wrote about in a Grade Point post a few months ago. In short, it’s what happens when smart students, usually low-income, could succeed at an elite college but never apply to one or go to one. When they go to a less-selective college they reduce their chances of earning a degree, according to the research.
[When it does matter where you go to college]
Rawlings taught and led great institutions, public and private, so most students could succeed at any of them. But that’s not always the case, and for some students, where they go to college is the difference between getting a degree or becoming another dropout statistic.
3. Colleges have turned the four-year degree into an assembly line of getting in and getting out as quickly as possible.
Rawlings wrote that “most public discussion of higher ed today pretends that students simply receive their education from colleges the way a person walks out of Best Buy with a television.”
In some cases, that’s exactly what is happening. The idea of college as a place for exploration and discovery is one that is quickly falling out of favor as the cost of a degree spirals upward and state and federal officials tie appropriations to graduation rates. I saw this firsthand a few years ago when I sat in on advising appointments at Temple University for a story on how colleges were centralizing their academic counseling and taking the role away from faculty members.
The professional advisers had largely one goal: to push students to sign up for the “right” classes and graduate on time. The same is true of electronic advising systems that many big public universities have adopted. Like online services that recommend movies and books based on similar customers, these advising systems suggest courses and majors based on similar students using complex data algorithms. The idea of trying out courses and unexpectedly falling in love with a subject is largely lost in such systems.
If colleges want to change the national conversation about higher education as a commodity they should stop blaming the messengers and should start changing their own messages and strategies about the economic value of a degree and how they assist students in getting to graduation.
Selingo is a regular contributor to Grade Point. He is a former editor of the Chronicle of Higher Education, an author of books about higher education and a professor of practice at Arizona State University.