Among President Obama’s numerous declarations during the State of the Union last week, one of the more noteworthy commitments he made was to increasing the affordability of higher education. In reference to the ballooning costs of attending college, Obama highlighted one of the central problems that face America’s young adult population—the increasing cost of a college degree in a society increasingly demanding one. While this is the unfortunate result of a myriad of factors, the current federal aid system is insufficient to ameliorate these issues and must be improved.
Ultimately, a federal solution is necessary to combat the outsized costs of an education; the government must take the initiative to dramatically increase the federal aid it provides to universities, particularly public universities. These institutions currently offer some of the most economical options to the largest number of people. By providing these institutions and their students more financial support, the government will not only encourage more individuals to pursue a college degree using the route that is already the most common, but it will also make it more financially palatable for those who have already decided to do so.
Nevertheless, there are other immediate steps the government can take to help prospective students achieve long-term financial success. One of the administration’s primary goals should be to demystify the confusion surrounding the benefits of a college education. High school seniors are currently fed copious amounts of information about the merits of a bachelor’s or master’s degree from a plethora of (often self-interested) sources. This marketing instills the erroneous belief that an expensive degree is tantamount to an assurance of future prosperity, regardless of the skills actually acquired as a student. This is patently false. For reasons beyond anyone’s control, the market for graduates with degrees outside the realms of math and science is smaller than the market for those with more quantitative skills. As such, students should be encouraged at least to explore options in fields whose skills are likely to be the most relevant after college.
This is not to diminish the academic, cultural, or social value of any academic field. In a perfect world, everyone would have the luxury of studying whatever one wished without it affecting his or her future salary. However, to pretend it is acceptable to bet hundreds of thousands of dollars on a degree without regards to its content ignores reality, The government should push back against the myth that all degrees are equally marketable and strive to educate students on the different opportunities different degrees confer.
Another measure the federal government can take to decrease student debt would be engaging in a widespread crackdown on for-profit colleges. In the struggle to increase college affordability, some of the most shameful offenders are these institutions. Many of these colleges violate not only the spirit, but also the letter of the law, engaging in practices such as accepting fraudulent high school credentials and plagiarized coursework, lying about the cost of degrees, and allegedly paying admissions officers to increase enrollment. Many are guilty of bait-and-switch tactics to entice students to matriculate. Recently, bureaucratic progress had been made towards properly regulating the for-profit college industry. However, as a result of heavy lobbying, many of these changes have been scaled back. This is wholly unacceptable. The goals of turning a profit and providing an education are incompatible and should not intersect.
That said, for-profit institutions are by no means the sole culprit. A host of schools, many of which receive taxpayer dollars (through either Pell Grants or direct funding), report what many would consider unacceptably low graduation rates. For example, the ten schools with the lowest federally reported graduation rates in the Washington D.C. area include nonprofit as well as for-profit institutions. The department of education needs to reevaluate its financial relationship with schools that consistently fail to graduate students, regardless of profit or nonprofit status. While it may seem harsh, the government should not continue to spend money on failed or failing institutions that could be used elsewhere unless those schools can provide a credible means to improve performance. Such measures are reasonable as families are not bound by location to a specific college like they would be to a high school or elementary school, removing any obligation the government has to provide educational opportunity based on proximity. Committing funds to one school instead of another is a mutually exclusive activity; such money should not be wasted.
The United States government has many tools at its disposal to reduce student debt, but it must begin with increasing federal aid to schools that could use it most.