Don't Give Up on College

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

With the real U.S. employment rate estimated to be in excess of 10%, women and minorities being disproportionately impacted, and unskilled jobs rapidly being replaced by those that need specialized training, it makes sense to invest in the learning infrastructure developed during the pandemic to put the country back to work. But it is important not to confuse this short-term imperative with the long-term goal of increasing the number of Americans with a college degree. Job training should not take the place of providing an affordable and meaningful college education to an increasing number of Americans.

Only a third of Americans have a college degree and based on 2020 enrollment statistics, the pandemic will cause that number to go down at least for the next year or two. More concerning is the dramatic drop in the number of minority and first-generation applications. By any measure, these are the Americans who can most benefit from a degree not only because of the economic benefits it bestows but also because, for the foreseeable future, a college degree is a passport to a better life. Michael Lomax, the CEO of the United Negro College Fund, put it this way, “You’ve got to have been poor, you’ve got to have been at the bottom for generations to understand the absolute urgency of mobility. It is more than the urgency of getting something beyond a living wage. It’s the urgency of economic independence, but it’s also the urgency I find in our students and their families to develop themselves fully.”

The confluence of the two biggest issues now confronting American higher education--student debt and free college--provides a tremendous opening to dramatically increase the number of Americans with a college degree. When you dig under the covers a bit, the opportunity becomes more obvious. Philip Clay, the Chancellor Emeritus at MIT, sent me the following email, “There are more than 30 million people who have some college. After you subtract those who are all set such as those 50 and over, you still have millions who would benefit from a stimulus to complete college.  This is low hanging fruit!”.  A recent report from the Lumina Foundation entitled Changing the Narrative on Student Borrowers of Color provides nuance to Chancellor Clay’s suggestion. The wide-ranging report suggests that twenty-four percent of those that have not completed a course of study beyond high school are in default on their student loans. Saddled with debt—often in default--and no degree, these students face the further reality of being prohibited from reenrolling until their prior debt is paid off. Roughly 6.6 million students are unable to use earned academic credits because their transcripts are being held as collateral by their former institutions. Not surprisingly, these numbers are dramatically higher among students of color.

Universities, corporations, and the private sector are all beginning to respond to what Dr. Clay referred to in his email as “low-hanging fruit.” At Morehouse College, the legendary HBCU based in Atlanta, starting in August an online course offering with reduced tuition will be available to the roughly 2 million Black men who pursued a higher education but never finished their degree. According to the school’s President, David Thomas, three days after the program was announced 5,000 inquiries had already been received.
Similarly, a new partnership between 2U, Inc. and Guild Education will give millions of employees at companies such as Lowes, Chipotle, and Walmart access to college courses and degree programs. Many of the eligible employees already have some college and the 2U-Guild alliance will make a college degree a realistic possibility.

Innovative approaches to addressing the needs of those learners who have failed to complete a degree are emerging everywhere, and the online learning catalyzed by the pandemic has turbocharged these efforts. Davinci Schools is exploring the sweet spot that connects higher education to employment by creating an experiential curriculum that gives students experience in the workplace to go with their academic training. Alamo Community College has developed particular expertise in addressing the needs of Hispanic students, offering 325 degree and certificate programs. Classes are available during the day, in the evening, and on weekends on six campuses, the Internet, and at various off-campus sites. The Alamo Community College District serves more than 52,000 students, about half of whom are Hispanic. Southern New Hampshire University, the fastest-growing non-profit university in the nation with 135,000 students, has broken new ground by using big data and intensive mentoring to achieve a 76% overall completion rate, while National Louis University is launching ambitious initiatives in inner-city Chicago and by the end of the first year, 60% of their students were on track to graduate in four years.  

Now, let’s connect the dots. A national consensus is building to forgive some amount of college debt and to make college free or at least more affordable. There are millions of Americans who started college but have not finished. Outstanding debt and high tuition are major impediments to completion and, coming out of the pandemic, there are an impressive set of models designed to serve the population of learners who have started but not finished college. The average balance on outstanding debt is less than $10,000. Why not target a portion of the aid aimed at higher education to this opportunity? Assuming all college debt will not be forgiven, increase the forgiveness ceiling significantly if a student who has dropped out goes back to school and eliminate the “hold” on re-registration for those with outstanding tuition and fees.  Cover the true cost of attendance for students who opt to return to school and make the same financial benefits available to part-time and full-time students. Create financial incentives for institutions that enroll students who have dropped out and increase the incentives if the student completes a course of study. These relatively simple but highly targeted initiatives can make a meaningful difference in the life of millions by allowing them to earn what is still the most meaningful credential in American life—a college degree.


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