Mike Lee, Mia Love: It's time to modernize higher education

December 15, 2017

From our state’s earliest days, Utah has placed a high value on education. It is part of our cultural DNA. So it’s not totally surprising that when it comes to higher education, Utah is getting a lot of things right.

For example, Utah’s tuition rates are the fourth lowest in the nation. Our state has the lowest average student debt. And it enjoys an impressive network of private and public universities, technical colleges and alternative education options. These positive data points directly contribute to Utah’s status as the most upwardly mobile state in the union.

However, troubling nationwide statistics continue to overshadow, and negatively influence, our positive statewide figures. Here are just a few of those numbers:

Between 1982 and 2007, the average cost of a four-year college education rose by 439 percent.
The average borrower now finishes college with $28,000 in debt.
70 percent of students now need to borrow to afford college.
25 percent of student loan borrowers are struggling to repay their debt or are in default.
Only 55 percent of students who start college finish with a degree.
Clearly, we can improve upon the status quo. Given rapidly changing economic dynamics, we must.
Utah’s past success indicates we can lead the way in creating a more innovative system of higher education. This will require reforms that foster greater accountability, affordability, transparency and adaptability. These principles are at the heart of the Higher Education Reform Opportunity (HERO) Act, introduced recently in both the U.S. House and Senate.

The HERO Act recognizes that today’s postsecondary students come from diverse backgrounds — from the traditional 18-year-old high school graduate, to the single mother, to the laid-off worker requiring mid-career training. It gives power to individual states to create alternative accreditation paths that will open doors to innovative new education options (i.e., massive online open courses, competency-based offerings, or certification exams) tailored to individual student needs. This will help students acquire the skills that employers need without necessarily having to finance a traditional four-year degree.

Additionally, the bill enhances transparency by providing students with data regarding their education options. Specifically, it would provide students with data reflecting how effective their school of choice is at helping students graduate on time, how significant the average graduate’s student loan debt is, and how successful graduates from each major are at obtaining a job that enables them to quickly pay back any student loan debt.

Finally, the HERO Act improves accountability by requiring schools that have poor student loan repayment rates to pay a fee, thus incentivizing them to fully invest in the future success of their students.

Today’s students deserve an innovative higher education system that provides more and better options to prepare these learners for the challenges and opportunities in today’s job market. The HERO Act is a real Utah solution and an important first step toward building that system and by so doing creates a more open door to the American Dream and the millions of Americans who are pursuing it.

Op-ed originally published in the Deseret News