The status quo in higher education isn’t working. That realization inspired a group of experts to come together for a recent discussion hosted by the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program and the Washington Monthly. During the lively conversation, panelists explored why our higher education system is failing students – and what we can do to recalibrate it. As Jamie P. Merisotis, the president of the Lumina Foundation, said at the start of the event, “changes in just about everything that touches the student’s experience” are needed.
Public anxiety about paying for college is at an all-time high, with ever-rising college prices and student loan debt skyrocketing. Congress is battling over funding student financial aid programs, while a billion-dollar student loan debt collection industry is targeting a growing number of students who have fallen behind on their loans. Meanwhile, most higher education institutions are failing to provide the disadvantaged students they enroll with the types of support services they need to succeed in college.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Panelists at Wednesday’s event offered solutions to these pressing problems.
First up was Robert G. Gaines, special assistant to the chancellor at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, who described the extraordinary efforts that this public, historically black university makes to get its students – who are mostly low-income and the first in their families to go to college – across the finish line at a reasonable price. The Washington Monthly ranked Elizabeth City as one of America’s “best bang for the buck” colleges in this year’s College Guide rankings, and suggested that it should serve as a national model.
“We may not have all the fancy dormitories that other facilities have,” Gaines said, “but our overall approach has been looking at what’s best for the students in order to ensure that we can keep our costs affordable and that we can provide the support that student needs in order to be successful.”
Next, Senior Policy Analyst Stephen Burd described the horrors of the country’s student loan collection system, which subjects “borrowers who deliberately skip out on their loans and those who are too financially distressed to repay to the same harsh treatment.” As he argued in his Washington Monthly article “Getting Rid of the Student Loan Repo Man,” Burd said that the United States should follow the lead of countries like Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom and create a single student loan repayment system that is entirely based on a borrower’s future income.
Kevin James, a legislative analyst to Rep. Tom Petri (R-WI), picked up where Burd left off by describing legislation his boss is on the verge of introducing that would create just such an income contingent student loan system.
Finally, Kevin Carey, the director of New America’s Education Policy program, and Jordan Goldman, the founder and chief executive officer at Unigo, a social network by students for prospective students seeking college admissions advice, talked about how technology is transforming higher education. As he wrote in his article “The Siege of Academe,” Carey argued that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have the potential to “breach the wall of higher education with disruptive technology” and help cure the college cost crisis by introducing much-needed competition from low-cost, on-line providers.
“We may not know exactly who it is that’s going to develop the application that really starts to eat away at these traditional business models,” Carey said. “But I feel like, with more confidence, we can say it’s going to be someone by almost just the share math of it.”