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Some of the nation’s wealthiest universities—and some smaller schools such as North Carolina’s Davidson College—have eased the burden on students by replacing all loans with grants in financial-aid packages. That’s noble, but not a realistic solution for all of higher education. “Most colleges are not awash in money. It would be very difficult to dial back the competitive game” of doling out aid to maximize revenue, says Douglas White, a business consultant and higher-education expert in Richmond, Va.
Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney says President Barack Obama encourages students to take on more debt, “sending them the bill tomorrow.” But Romney is still living down advice he gave to college students in April, telling them to “borrow from your parents” if they need money for school or to start a business. (Parents’ contributions are already figured into financial-aid packages.) Romney also favors reversing a 2010 decision under which the Education Department has tried to save $60 billion over 10 years by making all new federal loans directly, eliminating middlemen.
The most straightforward way to deal with the student debt problem is to bring down the unreasonably high cost of higher education, which forces students to go into debt in the first place. “We can’t just keep shoveling money into a system that consumes resources at an ever-faster clip,” Kevin Carey, then policy director of a nonprofit called Education Sector, told the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions last winter. Carey, who now directs education policy at the New America Foundation, told the senators about cost-saving initiatives such as those at Virginia Tech, where students learn intro math courses in computer labs rather than watching professors at chalkboards, and the University of Minnesota’s new Rochester campus, whose classrooms and labs are in the former food court and movie theater of a mall. The Minnesota school collaborates with IBM (IBM) and the Mayo Clinic for advanced courses such as computational biology.
Removing the campus altogether is even cheaper. Online operations such as EdX, Coursera, Khan Academy, and Udacity, among others, offer high-quality instruction at no cost to the student—but don’t yet award degrees. Accrediting agencies, dominated by incumbent schools, are skeptical. A survey published in June by Babson Survey Research Group and Inside Higher Ed found that 58 percent of professors surveyed have “more fear than excitement” about online learning.
Some day, low-cost online education that requires zero student borrowing may displace a big chunk of today’s entrenched establishment. The fact that it hasn’t yet says a lot about the durability of colleges and universities, several of which predate the country’s founding. Rather than places of learning, colleges have become expensive screening mechanisms. It’s not what you learn in four years at Harvard University that impresses potential employers; it’s the fact that you got into Harvard in the first place.
So maybe the real problem is that credentialism has trumped learning. That drives people to get degrees simply to displace others who don’t have degrees, says Richard Vedder, who directs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. He notes that the U.S. has more than 100,000 janitors with college degrees and 16,000 degree-holding parking lot attendants.
Political scientist Charles Murray would get rid of the bachelor’s degree altogether. In an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate last October in Chicago, he said education is or at least ought to be a lifelong process for everyone, diploma holders or not. “We are all engaged in the same process,” Murray argued. “We are not divided into professionals and service workers or blue-collar workers. We all start out as apprentices. We become journeymen, and we all strive to become master craftsmen.”
To tell the truth, though, many students are not exactly striving, if Arum and Roksa’s Academically Adrift is correct. Five-year colleges would be a better label for schools, since that’s the average amount of time it’s taking students to get through them. Financial aid is part of the problem: Students equipped with big loan packages can play schools against one another—and what students seem to want is good grades for light work, according to Arum’s research. To combat grade inflation, which has made college transcripts virtually useless to potential employers, Arum recommends that transcripts include the average grade given in a class next to the student’s letter grade. That would be like grading on a curve without having to grade on a curve. Students will presumably study harder, he says, if they know that their grades contain real information for employers and grad schools.
As for paying it all back, it would be going too far to direct students away from, say, ethnomusicology just because it’s less lucrative than nursing or petroleum engineering. Princeton University economist Cecilia Rouse points out that the liberal arts provide benefits to society beyond those that loan officers pay attention to. It’s hard, though, to argue against a standard disclosure form that would tell students about the debt load, unemployment rate, and average first-year income for graduates of the school and the major they’re thinking of committing their lives to.
It may be a while before it’s all solved. In 1939, the New Yorker published a short story called “Ah, the University!” about a well-to-do man who orders his only son to become a professional poker player because he doesn’t want to pay for him to go to college. “Certainly nothing in the world is more delightful than being at the university,” the father says. “The springtime of life! Pleasure after pleasure! … However, I’m not going to send you there.” Perhaps the gentleman was just ahead of his time.