A Better Life for More Americans

Buck Goldstein
Entrepreneur in Residence and Professor of the Practice UNC-Chapel Hill

A meditation teacher I know suggests to students, “Don’t just do something, sit there.” I took the advice but after a two-month period of reflection, it is time to wade back into the fray. What follows is my first attempt.

After a year of uncertainty and almost daily crisis for America’s colleges and universities, the focus is shifting to rebuilding. But we cannot begin without reminding ourselves that American universities were created based on a simple partnership: in exchange for providing a useful education, universities would receive public support to finance their efforts (initially in the form of a tax exemption). For a partnership to work, the partners must trust one another to deliver their side of the bargain but trust is hard to come by when neither partner has delivered on its side of the bargain. Over half of our fellow citizens have no education beyond high school and, only a third have a college degree. The pandemic has stalled any improvement in these numbers. Equally disturbing, nationwide public support for higher education has declined by $6.6 billion between 2008 and 2018. Yet, by any measure of economic or social wellbeing, Americans with a college degree are significantly better off than those without one. Moreover, the groundbreaking work of Anne Case and Angus Deaton in their book, Deaths of Despair, suggests that white male Americans without a college degree are ten times more likely than the general population to die of suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdose. And we have learned, yet again in recent days, our American democracy is highly dependent on an educated public.

The havoc the pandemic has imposed on colleges and universities provides just the kind of disruption that can ultimately lead to dramatic improvements. At this moment, all but the most selective schools are required to embrace fundamental change if they are to weather the crisis. This kind of involuntary change forces innovation that would otherwise take decades to accomplish. If the innovation is undertaken thoughtfully, it will allow institutions to not only survive but to prosper by reaching out to the tens of millions of Americans with no education beyond high school. If just 15% more young people without a credential were to earn one, it would move the country from the middle of the pack among developed countries to a position of leadership and over 17,000,000 young adults would earn a post-secondary school credential. 

To be clear, such a goal is not a call to return to the status quo. Most schools understand this is not possible. Rather it is a suggestion that the current crisis is an opportunity to rebuild a system that is demonstrably better than the old one because it would serve a larger and more diverse group of Americans. Let’s have a look at the major disruptors of the current system and how creative responses can result in dramatic improvements.  

Selective Admissions.  The 100 or so selective colleges in the United States can’t move the meter in terms of absolute numbers of college graduates but they have a critical role to play in the long-term effort. They have vast financial resources accumulated thanks to their tax-exempt status. All of higher education pays attention to these schools and tries to emulate them. They set the standard for excellence and acceptability in American higher education. Additionally, these schools have been least impacted by the current epidemic—applications for fall 2021 to selective schools are actually up substantially even as overall applications declined.

If President Biden can create a Cabinet that looks like America, America’s elite colleges and universities can create a student body that does the same. To achieve this goal, colleges and universities must rethink the concepts of merit and excellence without giving an unfair advantage to the affluent and they must make the financial commitments so that attendance is affordable for all admitted students. Moreover, they must do all of this without adversely impacting their impressive completion rate which, in most cases, is well over 90%.  Like other audacious missions, this effort will require a tremendous expenditure of financial and social capital. The price tag will not be cheap and the other changes in campus culture and long-standing traditions will be hard for many to accept. To get an idea of what is involved, imagine the reaction when these schools adopt holistic admissions standards that negatively impact applicants from affluent secondary schools, abolish preferences for legacy applicants and undertake an overhaul or outright ban of the Greek system. But these are examples of what will be required if true campus diversity is to be achieved.

I suggest it is worth it. The seismic shift required to educate dramatically more Americans will require cultural change among all associated with the higher educational enterprise, and selective schools must lead by example. Equally important, for the foreseeable future, the graduates of selective schools will continue to assume leadership roles in the institutions that shape the direction of the country. Our leaders of tomorrow must look like America and 100 or so colleges and universities can play a critical role in making that happen.

Free College. Free college is an idea whose time has come. Already requirements for Pell grant eligibility have been expanded, the uniform application for financial aid has been dramatically simplified and a tuition free college education has become an important part of President Biden’s plan for the future. Making college free will be a big first step toward reaching those who until now have not pursued education beyond high school. But two interrelated challenges must also be addressed: increasing the absolute number of those who pursue additional education after high school and increasing the percentage of those who actually finish. First, potential applicants must be convinced that college is actually worth it and that it is a real possibility for people like them. They must see a clear path to a better job and a better life. Second, the fact that many potential applicants are not adequately prepared for college must be acknowledged and addressed through a combination of robust pre-college curricula offered in cooperation with the community college system and innovative college advising efforts such as College Advising Corps. Third, the application process itself must be as simple as getting a driver’s license or a credit card. This will be much easier if college is free and detailed financial information is no longer needed.

Convincing students to actually enroll in some form of post-secondary education is only half the battle. As it turns out less than half of those who start a four-year degree finish and, for community colleges, the completion rate is only 10%.  A variety of factors contribute to this historically low number. As Cathy Davidson and Sara Goldrick-Rabb have passionately explained for some time now, food and housing insecurity are often an impediment as is the need to give up work that contributes to family income. There are also social costs in the form of damaged family relationships and the loss of traditional community support associated with the upward mobility offered by a college degree. as Jennifer Morton discusses these factors in-depth in her important book, Moving Up without Losing Your Way.

In addition to addressing the range of financial and social costs associated with pursuing education beyond high school, a full set of incentives and interventions that operate from acceptance until completion must also be put in place. A guaranteed internship or part-time job tied to academic progress while in school and a good job tied to graduation are the most compelling incentives available.   Emergency funds for students close to graduation but unable to continue for financial reasons have proven to be a cost-effective way to increase completion. Using technology and social media to stay connected to students throughout the time it takes to obtain a degree is critical and this must be coupled with data-driven early warning signals. We know the early signs of student drop out such as missing class, failure to read the syllabus, or missing an initial assignment. Innovative institutions have developed systematic proactive interventions that contact at-risk students early in the semester when it is possible to provide the support necessary to encourage a change in behavior.  The most important factor, however, is to create a culture that welcomes students of all backgrounds with the understanding that their graduation and a better life after graduation are fundamental to the community they have joined when they enrolled in college.

Leaving home will be too big a leap for many high school graduates so the four-year residential model is out of the question if we hope to educate millions more high school graduates. Our network of community colleges plays a critical role at the top of a very broad funnel where some students go seamlessly from two-year to four-year institutions and others prepare themselves for the world of work with focused job training as well as problem-solving skills that are required to navigate life in the twenty-first century.
Ultimately, for the promise of free college to actually work, the challenge of convincing potential applicants to undertake education beyond high school cannot be underestimated. The narrative that college is not worth it has never been more visible in the American culture even if the messengers almost uniformly have a degree as do their children. Directly connecting economic benefits to a credential beyond high school is the best approach to win over those that need convincing but making the case that education results in a better life and a more informed citizenry should also be part of the message.
Another approach worth exploring is tying the size of free college payments to data-driven standards that measure diversity and completion rate. The better a school does on these and other relevant measures, the larger the payment. The program could be structured as an incentive program where all schools get a basic per-student subsidy, but that number goes up based on the achievement of key data-driven milestones.

Loan Forgiveness. Forgiving college debt is among the most popular proposals currently being considered in Congress, for obvious reasons. Americans are burdened by $1.2 trillion dollars of student debt; a shocking number and 71 percent of students have some form of a college loan. A deeper look at the parameters of college debt suggests a huge opportunity. First, the average outstanding loan balance is under $10,000 and the outstanding amount on loans in default is $14,000. Second, sixty-five percent of those who owe more than $50,000 are graduate students. Third, 25% of college loans over $50,000 involve for-profit institutions many of which have gone bankrupt or gone out of business. Fourth, and most importantly, a third of all student debt is owed by students who do not have a degree and are least able to repay. It is for these young people that college debt forgiveness can have the biggest impact.
Politics may require some form of across-the-board forgiveness, but the preponderance of debt relief should focus on the 64% who have not yet obtained a degree or other credential. An offer of total loan forgiveness tied to college completion and a tuition-free path to achieve that goal for those who have dropped out is an overwhelming value proposition. If only 40% of those students who are in default without a credential complete their degree, 34,000,000 additional Americans will be impacted.  

Reimagining the College Degree. The pandemic sparked the largest beta test in the history of technology when literally billions of students all over the world began learning online. Predictably, the results were mixed but the accumulated knowledge about teaching online that began last spring and continues to the present cannot be underestimated. Almost anyone who teaches now knows more about online learning and new technology than they did before the pandemic. Moreover, innovation, out of necessity, increased exponentially. New features on platforms like Zoom were introduced almost daily to make the experience easier, more interactive, and more secure. Most importantly, the innovation has been bottoms up with users developing hacks that solved their immediate problems while developers sprinted to catch up. There is no indication that the pace of innovation will slow post-pandemic.
Despite a 13% drop in overall college enrollment during the fall 2020 semester, online colleges experienced enrollment growth. The best of these schools developed sophisticated mechanisms to track student progress, immediately address problems and ultimately maximize the chances for student success. Post-pandemic, most college students and those intending to attend college will opt for an in-person learning experience with some percentage of their classes being online. If the needs of a larger number of high school graduates are to be met, then classes at traditional colleges and universities must increasingly become a hybrid involving online lectures combined with in-person class time devoted to discussion group learning and interactive activities with immediate feedback. Classes might meet in person once a week with the remainder of class time being offered online. Online courses must also be an important part of the course offerings especially when the course would otherwise be delivered in a large lecture format. Other student services such as career services, academic counseling, and student health services must also be delivered online whenever possible.

The popularity of online colleges demonstrates they must play an important role in any national effort to dramatically increase the number of college graduates. The average college student is 22 years old, 28% have children, and 62% have a full or part-time job. The population of potential enrollees is even older and more likely to have children and a full-time job. For these Americans, an online degree or other forms of online education is the best alternative, and an increasing number of schools and other enterprises are responding to that demand. The challenge will be to offer not only technical skills that lead to employment opportunities but also the other elements associated with a college degree such as critical thinking, team dynamics, and historical perspective.

Whether traditional or online, an online college degree, as we know it is not the answer for many high school graduates. For these students, a better approach may be a diverse set of offerings that include internships, apprenticeships, highly specialized modular courses combined with exposure to subjects that contribute to civic and financial literacy. This set of stacked credentials can be another form of a post-secondary degree. What the degree is called is less important than ensuring upon completion a student has a good job, the ability to adapt to a changing world, and the tools to engage in democracy.

Rebuilding college as a mirror-image of its former self is both impossible and a waste of a huge opportunity. The huge amount of financial and human resources required by the rebuilding process must be focused on making the system work for an increased number of citizens who, so far, have been left out of the American Dream.

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