Issue in Focus
Jan 16 2015
Our higher education system – and especially the federal policies that govern access to it – is failing the two-thirds of Americans who never get a B.A., and the large minority of Americans who never set foot on a college campus.
American workers need post-secondary knowledge and skills. But spending four (or five or six) years at a brick-and-ivy residential institution is not the only way to get them. Indeed, it’s not the way that most Americans get them.
There are vocational schools and professional training programs. There are apprenticeships in the skilled trades. There are hybrid on-campus/on-the-job models. There is the bourgeoning promise of distance learning options, like Massive Open Online Courses. Unfortunately, this innovative, alternative market is being held back by federal policy governing higher-education accreditation.
Today, the federal government operates a kind of higher-education cartel, with federally approved accreditors using their gatekeeper power to keep out unwanted competition. This closed market has helped spur runaway inflation, which has made it impossible for all but the wealthiest students to pay their own way. So Washington’s offer to most high school graduates is: go tens of thousands of dollars into debt to pursue an over-priced degree, or spend the rest of your life locked out of the middle class.
To fix this, we need reforms to make higher education, better and more affordable, while opening access to more students than ever before: reforms like the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity (HERO) Act that give states a new option to enter into agreements with the Department of Education to create their own, alternative accreditation systems to open up new options for students qualifying for federal aid. Under state accreditation, higher education could become as diverse and nimble as the job-creating industries looking to hire.
Brick-and-ivy institutions will always be the backbone of our higher-education system, but they shouldn’t be the only option – particularly for those who need loans and grants to pay for their education.
The point of higher education policy should be to make it easier and more affordable for good teachers to teach, willing students to learn, and the economy to grow. Republican reforms could help on all fronts.