Is a College Education a Safe Investment?
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- This is one of a series of interviews by Bloomberg Opinion columnists on how to solve the world’s most pressing policy challenges. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Romesh Ratnesar: The Build Back Better Act passed last month in the House of Representatives contains significant investments in higher education, including billions in support for historically black colleges and universities and a new fund to help college students complete their degrees. However, some of President Biden’s key priorities were dropped from the bill, including making community college tuition-free for all. You’re the country’s top official on higher education policy. What do you say to advocates who believe this was the best opportunity to achieve free college — and now it may never happen?
James Kvaal, Under Secretary, U.S. Department of Education: This is the way the system works — the president proposes something and then you have to get it through Congress. I know that he fought very hard [for free community college] and if there were something he could do to get it in the package, it would be in the package. That said, this idea has come a tremendous distance since people started talking about it six years ago. It will continue to be one of the president’s top priorities and we’re going to explore every tool that we have to keep moving toward this goal.
RR: Some progressives are also disappointed that Congress didn’t take action to cancel student-loan debt. Is the administration considering doing more on its own?
JK: Well, we’ve done quite a bit already. There are people who are already eligible for debt cancellation — whether because they were cheated by their college, or they had a permanent disability, or they’re in a public service job — and yet often are not getting it. So we’ve focused on making sure borrowers are getting the benefits that they’re entitled to. So far, we’ve completely canceled the debts of more than 600,000 students. There are tens of thousands more who believe they were cheated by their college and have applied for their loans to be discharged. We are working through that as quickly as we can. We are working to permanently expand public-service loan forgiveness; we’re also making income-driven repayment, which ensures that loan payments are an affordable share of borrowers’ income, more generous and as easy as possible to use. So there’s quite a bit we’re doing on all fronts.
RR: As you know, Senator Elizabeth Warren, among others, has said the president could take executive action and wipe out student-loan debt tomorrow. Is that true?
JK: It’s a very complicated subject, and it’s something that we have been studying very carefully. We have lawyers at the Department of Education, the Justice Department and the White House working together on this. The deliberations over that question are still going on.
RR: So you haven’t ruled out, say, canceling some amount across the board?
JK: I’m not in a position to rule it in or rule it out. It’s something about which conversations are still going on, including the legal aspects of our authority to do this.
RR: You previously worked in the Obama administration as a senior policy adviser, dealing with the impact of the 2008 financial crisis and recession on higher education. Can you compare your experience in that crisis with what we’re facing today?
JK: The 2009 recession was obviously a very scary time. The economy was shedding jobs. The top priority for [Obama]was to stop the freefall, start creating jobs and address the financial markets and the housing markets that were frozen and were impediments to growth. Those of us working on higher education policy were trying to help people get the skills that they would need to go into better jobs when the jobs came back.
The situation we’re in right now is quite different. For one, enrollment has fallen, instead of grown. So with enrollment down 700,000 students, we’re asking, how do we make sure this interruption is not a permanent scar on our country’s educational attainment? How do we get those people back on the pathway? There’s also a real sense that something has changed permanently. We’re not going to go back to the way things were in 2019. We’re going forward to something different. There are going to be a lot of aspects to that. We’re going to use technology differently and there’s going to be a different mix of online and in-person learning. Finally, students have lost learning time. They face mental health challenges. So we need to build institutions a little differently to meet what students’ needs are going to be instead of what they were.
RR: To what extent do we face a bigger crisis of people losing the motivation to attend college, because they’re not seeing its value proposition? Is that a problem that’s bigger than the pandemic?
JK: It’s true that enrollments have been declining for a while, though there’s a demographic aspect to that. But in my opinion, there are few institutions that are as important to our country right now as higher education. A college education can do more than just about anything to boost someone up into the middle class, to create equal opportunity, to fight poverty. But it’s also true that we don’t reliably extend those benefits to everyone who enrolls. Our national college completion rate is only about 60%. That is particularly troubling when you think about the number of people who are financing their educations with debt. There are people out there who followed the recommendation to pursue a degree, they took out loans, they went to college and yet they found themselves worse off than if they had never attempted college at all.
We do need to work very hard on that value proposition to make sure that people know it’s not only a good investment, but a safe investment. That if they do go to college, they have a good shot at graduating, finding that job or going on to further education and are not going to be left with debts that can’t afford to repay.
RR: Can the government hold institutions more accountable for the outcomes of the people who attend?
JK: What the federal government has done, and I think successfully, is try to define what an unacceptable outcome is. If you’re setting minimum standards, that can have an impact. What is harder is when you think systemically. Higher education across the board has a 60% graduation rate. How are we trying to move that whole system? You’re not talking about just a couple of low performers.
What we’ve learned over the last couple of years is that progress really is possible. There are colleges out there who have made dramatic strides in their graduation rates, who have closed gaps between black and Latino and white students. So there are lessons out there. The question is, how do you take those lessons and systemically apply them? Our sector is really, really innovative; whatever the problem is, someone has probably solved it, but that solution is often not well known even on their campus, much less across the country. It’s less a question of the federal government defining metrics and imposing accountability than trying to change the culture so that college leaders know that better outcomes are possible. And then it’s a question of whether they want to work to achieve them and recognize that there are ways to be an excellent college that doesn’t involve climbing the U.S. News rankings, but is instead about trying to help a broad swath of their communities succeed.
RR: So that involves incentives. Can you describe what form those incentives might take?
JK: Georgia State, for example, has used data to diagnose why students drop out and has dramatically improved graduation rates. The City University of New York’s ASAP program is another successful model. I think there is a role for the administration to play in highlighting the people that are doing great work out there. We can put money behind those things that work and help colleges expand them, using data and evidence. But it’s not, strictly speaking, a policy problem. We as a higher education community need to come together and say, there’s another set of values, another way of being an excellent college that we can work toward.
RR: There are many voices inside and outside education calling for more innovation in higher ed, including more alternatives to traditional four-year degrees. Do you think that it’s time to rethink the traditional model of college?
JK: I actually think the traditional model does work quite well. A four-year college degree has very substantial benefits for those who earn one, economically and beyond. I don’t think there is something broken in the concept of a four year degree at all. I do think that there are a lot of very high-quality career programs — some are two-year degrees, some are certificate programs — which do not always have the resources or, honestly, the respect that they need. So elevating those programs is important.
There’s also no question that educational technology is going to be a driving force in where higher education is going. There are a lot of online universities that are doing some really interesting things in terms of reaching adults, in particular. And I think there’s a lot of potential in that. What’s really important, from our perspective, is to make sure that students are getting what they need out of those programs.
RR: What about elite institutions? A growing criticism of the country’s most prestigious schools is that they’re not using the enormous resources they have to serve the public interest. Do you think that university endowments should be taxed? And if not, what should those institutions be doing to help more students who could benefit from what they have to offer?
JK: Our country is very, very lucky to have these institutions, particularly research universities with large endowments. They make many contributions as drivers of research and innovation, which is the only route to long-term increases in living standards. If you were interested in future-proofing your city, it’s hard to think of a better investment you could make than a major research university. At the same time, I think that they could work harder to be more inclusive. One thing that I’ve talked to some of these presidents about is whether they could accept more transfer students from community college, who tend to be more diverse. The data suggest they do as well as [other] students. We know that 80% of community college students want a four-year degree, but only 14% get them. I think admitting more of these students would have a really powerful impact not only on those whom the universities are able to enroll, but also as a signal to all of higher education.
RR: In many ways, the challenges that colleges face can’t be solved without looking at the country’s education system as a whole. What can be done to connect the K-12 system with higher education to make sure students have the tools necessary to succeed in college and beyond?
JK: We had a meeting a couple of years ago where we invited communities to participate. And I remember distinctly that in some of these metropolitan areas, the K-12 schools’ superintendent, the community college president and the four-year college president had never been in the same room together. So there’s clearly a need for them to work more closely together. I think that the tremendous diversity of our post-secondary system is a great strength. But it’s very difficult for a student to understand what her options are and where she might be well served. For a student leaving high school, we don’t know, by and large, where she is likely to succeed in college and where she’s not. We don’t know if a particular community college is doing a good job helping their students go on to four-year degrees or not. And those are questions that we should be able to answer.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Romesh Ratnesar writes editorials on education, economic opportunity and work for Bloomberg Opinion. He was deputy editor of Bloomberg Businessweek and an editor and foreign correspondent for Time. He has served in the State Department, and is author of “Tear Down This Wall.”
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