Affordability, Higher Education

Iowa Caucuses

Here it is–Iowa Caucus day 2020.  In this topsy-turvy field of democratic candidates (obviously the republican candidate is already settled), we’ll be watching the winnowing begin.  Student debt has been one of the top issues for many of the candidates, and I have been watching with interest as various plans for reform are put forward. While I do not have anything to say about the plans, such as they are, I do want to focus on some issues that are salient for me.

The structure of our economy, coupled with the cost of housing, means that most people cannot achieve a measure of economic stability without some level of post-secondary education.  What that post-secondary education consists of can vary widely, but as a society, we must acknowledge that a high school diploma no longer carries any real advantage.  To help people help themselves, we must support affordable post-secondary education.

Affordable has two important variables, where one starts and where one hopes to end up. Where one starts is all about the assets we can leverage to go to college.  Those assets have to do with our K-12 experiences (did we have access to quality college preparatory curriculum or will we need remedial education), our socio-cultural experiences (has anyone in our family/neighborhood ever attended college or do we have to figure it all out on our own), and our economic status (can we pay tuition? can we afford not to work full-time?). Policy proposals surrounding higher education need to take these questions into account, because they answers have everything to do with student debt.  Less-preparation, more time working, and even cultural adjustments generally add time to degree completion. Time to degree completion drives up cost.

Where one hopes to end up has to do with the potential earnings associated with one’s college degree. This is not a simple equation.  Investing in nursing, or education, or accounting degrees may have a pretty clear return on investment, (if you don’t overspend to achieve them) but most degrees do not. Working in public service careers generally means earning less than in the private sector, but not always.  A good education in entrepreneurship does not a millionaire make.  It simply prepares students for the changing world of work. So does a degree in literature. For advanced degrees, it may make more sense to align cost with earnings potential, but at the undergraduate level, it just does not add up. Given this complexity, perhaps it is the cost of the undergraduate degrees that we should focus on, not the earnings potential of particular majors.

Much of the college debt conversation in the press features extravagant and often unnecessary borrowing.  It makes a good news story to focus on the student who took out $150,000-200,000 in student loans and now cannot afford to live reasonable lives.  This is a lot of debt, but those loans frequently reflect some unfortunate decisions, most of them motivated by an obsession with brand recognition. Social pressures and guidance counselor recommendations inspire students to pursue degrees at private colleges and universities, when families do not have sufficient resources to support attendance at those schools. Borrowing to attend many privates can easily top $150,000.  Yet, there are many public alternatives with the same curriculum and leading to the same certifications.  Let’s try to stop the debt before it happens, by focusing on the public options. We should celebrate the investment we have made in public higher education and the opportunities it provides, instead of convincing students that a lot of debt for comparable private school experience is necessary.

While public colleges and universities are relatively affordable, and our system of Pell Grants is admirable, we are still too expensive for many families. Remember, we have increased the credential requirements for a reasonable standard of living, so more people must go to college. This means many families who might not have ever considered post-secondary education now feel compelled to provide it. They are not likely to have amassed sufficient savings to support a college degree. If we simply take the basic model, where students live with their parents while in college, then the costs per year at a public college in the northeastern US is somewhere between $8,000-$14,000 per year (considering fees and books, etc.). If families want their students to have a residential experience, then we are talking about an additional $10-12,000 per year.  This could easily get a student to $80,000-100,000 in debt. It is not the norm, though.  Most opt to commute and save on the housing.  There is actually quite a lot of responsible borrowing. But, how much is reasonable?  What level of interest should a student pay on that debt? These are the important questions. What is a reasonable return on investment based on the typical, not the exceptions?

What is clear to me is that I am looking for a candidate with a demonstrated commitment to public higher education.  Seventy-four percent of all students attend public higher education institutions. These institutions do their very best to meet the needs of a diverse student body, by combining support for the least prepared students, with opportunities for the most-prepared students, all with the same finish line in view. They are non-profit, which frees them to focus on the best interest of the students, not the bottom line. Unfortunately, public institutions have faced funding cuts for over a decade and these have been passed on to our students.  Those cuts are a huge driver of student debt. So, let’s fund public higher education at a level that does reduce debt. Let’s invest wisely in these engines of opportunity, because we know that we need to education the majority, not the lucky few. Let’s commit to creating opportunities for all because the return on that investment will benefit the whole of our society.

Affordability, equity, Higher Education

New Educational Models

This morning’s news about higher education included two articles related to the financial structures in higher education.  The first, A New Model for a New Reality, discussed St. John’s University’s efforts to replace tuition funds with donor funds, to reduce the cost to students.  The second, A Public College Merger in Arkansas, describes the merger of Henderson State with the Arkansas State University System.  This is a cost saving measure, seeking to leverage shared services (IT, HR, etc.) to reduce costs in the face of shrinking enrollments due to demographic shifts. These stories are part of steady stream of stories about vulnerable institutions of higher education.

Much of the eastern United States is facing the squeeze arising from a significant decline in high school graduates and these cost containment strategies may help us get through it.  Indeed, in terms of public systems, my frugal side suggests that sharing some resources, already invested in by the residents of my state, is a fair and thoughtful strategy.  However, I think we have only scratched the surface of the problem (sustainability) for higher education.  We need to think much more broadly about new models, than these efforts to balance budgets suggest.

To get a little more insight into this, we need to look beyond the headlines surrounding particular colleges and universities in dire financial straits, and consider the many environmental factors affecting higher education right now.  Here is but one intertwined example: the expansion of advance placement (AP) to full associate’s degrees in high school, and the national strategy of increasing post-secondary education attainment to 60% by 2020 (https://www.ets.org/Media/Research/pdf/37720-Challenges-and-Opp-Exec-Summary.pdf).

Advanced Placement courses were once available to a limited pool of students at relatively well-funded high schools.  Today, earning college credit in high school is widely available.  This transformation has involved a variety of steps.  First, we have expanded opportunities by moving from a simple AP test, provided by the College Board, to offering Early College programs, which include partnerships with local colleges and universities.  Early College is overseen by faculty at the partner schools and provides students with direct college credits (Calculus, for example), at that university, and a very low cost.  Progressive school districts have found ways to support the costs for the neediest students, broadening access to a college level curriculum.  This is a positive, but there is more to the story.

Because of the affordability of this model, and a desire to expose more students to college-level experiences, there has been a move to offer the full associate’s degree in high school. The difficulty here is simply this–high school is not college.  Although a student may master calculus in high school, and deserve college credit for it, in reality the conditions under which that material is learned are very different from college.  The pace is slower, and the supports for learning much stronger, because there is not the same presumption of independence (appropriately so) in high school.  In addition, this is mostly a cost-shifting scheme, making high schools responsible for supplying an educational opportunity for which they receive little financial support.

A related development, driven by the focus on increasing the attainment of post-secondary credentials, is a tremendous investment in community colleges. The target of 60% degree attainment by 2020 is driving a focus on two-year degrees and certificates.  There are significant barriers to increasing the number of people enrolled in four-year degrees, so focusing on two-year degrees and short-term certificates makes a lot of sense.  This, however, effectively leaves four-year degree granting institutions out of the conversation, and frequently underfunded.

Now, all of this is complicated and not something I can fully dissect in this blog, but I would like to consider a few implications.  First, the structural issues that are keeping students from four-year degrees are largely financial.  Moving education to the high schools just hides the problem and cheapens the educational experience. Focusing on investing in community colleges, at the expense of investing in universities, is likely to reduce the number of students who consider pursuing four-year degrees.

Second, while these cost cutting schemes look like great paths to access, they tend to prioritize completion over growth.  I am all for access to jobs that can stabilize family finances quickly, but certificates and two-year degrees tend to be less than is needed for a full career arc in a constantly changing economy.   Funding access to those, at the expense of four-year and post-baccalaureate degrees, is likely to keep the neediest students from access to the full education experience that they deserve.

It is hard to discuss the complexity of these issues without appearing to devalue first-level credentials. That is not my point at all.  I am a champion of community colleges and a supporter of reasonable early college initiatives. What I am suggesting, though, is that we need to look at these initiatives in the context of the full range of opportunities we hope to provide to our community. Perhaps, reconfiguring our education timelines should be part of this conversation. If we determine that supporting initial credentials in high school can help students find their way to additional education and careers, fine. Then that should be the path for all students, not just those who can’t afford college. If a stop at community college to round out that initial certification and provide some career foundations is a good idea, great. Then it should be the norm, and not a strategy just for those without a family history of attending college. After this, attending universities for baccalaureate and graduate degrees should be financially available to everyone, as we support long-term growth in the rapidly evolving workplace.

What I am trying to say is this; it is time for us to have a real conversation about what our post-secondary education goals should be, not just in terms of attainment, but in terms of equity, and real access to life-learning. We must re-imagine education for modern standards and expectations, and then create funding models that make the full range of post-secondary credentials truly accessible to all.