College is not free, and never will be. Someone is always paying -- taxpayers, private donors, students or some mix of the three. That obvious truth is missing from much of our political debate and the growing panic over student loans, which casts education debt as a tragedy rather than an investment. The hardening rhetoric against student loans threatens to undermine national success in broadening access to higher education, discouraging the very students we need.
This may sound strange coming from someone whose signature career achievement is a no-loans aid program. The whole idea behind the Carolina Covenant, which we launched at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2003, was to assuage growing worry about student debt by eliminating loans for our lowest-income students.
But if we’re going to put higher education within reach of the millions more who would benefit, loans are going to be a crucial part of the equation. And that means students from all backgrounds -- especially low-income, first-generation and minority students -- need to understand reasonable student debt as an opportunity, not a crushing burden.
Middle- and upper-income families already have that view, which is why they’ve been willing to shoulder modest loans to earn valuable degrees. The vast majority of the increase in aggregate debt over the past few years -- the much-decried $1.3 trillion in student debt -- has come from more Americans pursuing a degree, a public policy success we ought to be celebrating. Millions of Americans have correctly seen higher education as a bridge to a better future.
For low-income and first-generation students, that bridge too often looks like a trap. Even modest loans can be frightening for families that have no experience of college investment, so they’re less willing to take that step. Overblown angst about debt threatens to entrench this class divide in ways that will prove deeply destructive to American higher education.
The promise of a no-loans education is as much about communication as about financing. For our lowest-income students at Carolina, it was meant to overcome the impression of debt as a hardship and a barrier. Our own research showed that it wasn’t a hardship -- students taking out modest loans for a quality education are almost invariably better off. But the perception was so strong among historically disadvantaged families that a no-loans promise for those students made sense.
We’re fortunate to have the resources for such a program, but most colleges and universities don’t -- especially not the regional public universities and community colleges that serve a disproportionate share of first-generation and minority students. If we’re going to move the needle on college access in the United States -- and we must, given our shifting demographics and the economic stakes -- then families have to get comfortable with personal investment in education.
That was certainly the story for my family many years ago. Having grown up in a small Midwest farming community with no resources for college, I took out more than $6,000 to cover my undergraduate education -- a sum that exceeds $41,000 in today’s dollars. And then there was the follow-on debt for graduate and professional education. It was scary, but it was also a privilege to use someone else’s money to improve my life. And that, fundamentally, is what students are doing when they use student loans to pursue an education.
If a “no loans” sentiment takes hold among students and policy makers, it will undermine access to college and make stories like mine less likely. It would reverse the democratization of higher education, devastating community colleges and public universities that are already stretched thin in their effort to serve a diversifying student body.
We badly need a more focused conversation about the right balance of taxpayer money, donor support and other university funds that can offset the cost to students. But in any scenario I can envision, short of creating a true K-16 entitlement, student loans are going to remain a necessary part of the mix.
If we cut off opportunity capital in the name of protecting students or taxpayers, we will end up with less opportunity. The relatively few families who can afford it will continue to buy high-quality, immersive education for their children. And others -- no matter how talented, no matter how driven -- will be left with meager options.
That would be a tragedy, not an improvement. The lamentations of the antidebt crowd assume that policy makers will ride to the rescue with new funding, but it won’t happen. Money is not that plentiful any more -- not from the states, and not from the federal government, despite what some of the presidential campaigns have promised. The students who benefit from higher education are going to remain personally invested, and there’s nothing regrettable about that.
We should stop scaring families with misleading tales of ruinous debt, and stop heeding pundits who would prefer to make education a rarefied luxury. When it comes to opening doors for our most vulnerable students, responsible borrowing is a solution, not a problem.
Shirley Ort is associate provost and director of the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
The Republican Party's platform, which was released on the first day of the GOP convention in Cleveland, included criticism of the Obama administration's handling of sexual discrimination on college campuses as well as calls to decouple accreditation from federal financial aid and to bring the private sector back into the financing of student loans. The document also criticized the dominance of liberalism on college campuses and argued for the encouragement of new systems of learning to compete with traditional, four-year colleges.
The platform decried ideological bias in public higher education, saying state officials should "preserve our public colleges, universities and trade schools as places of learning and the exchange of ideas, not zones of intellectual intolerance or 'safe zones,' as if college students need protection from the free exchange of ideas." It also condemned infringements on free speech and campus-based boycott, divestment and sanction campaigns against Israel.
On Title IX, which is the federal law that prohibits discrimination based on sex in federally funded programs, the Republican document said the White House's alleged "distortion" and micromanagement of the way colleges deal with allegations of abuse "contravenes our country's legal traditions and must be halted before it further muddles this complex issue and prevents the proper authorities from investigating and prosecuting sexual assault effectively with due process."
Citing rising college pricing, the GOP said public policy should advance affordability, innovation and transparency in technical institutions, online universities, lifelong learning and work-based learning in the private sector, while recognizing that a "four-year degree from a brick-and-mortar institution is not the only path toward a prosperous and fulfilling career."
Likewise, the platform said accreditation should be decoupled from federal financing to encourage new modes of higher education delivery to enter the market, while states should be "empowered to allow a wide array of accrediting and credentialing bodies to operate."
The federal government should not be in the business of originating student loans, according to the document, reversing a change the Obama administration made. The restoration of private sector participation would help bring down college costs while giving students access to a multitude of financing options, according to the platform.
The June 23 edition of Inside Higher Ed featured a thoughtful essay by Mike Rose titled “Reassessing a Redesign of Community Colleges.” The essay discusses the guided pathways reform model that we described in our 2015 book, Redesigning America’s Community Colleges: A Clearer Path to Student Success.
We wrote the book because we perceived that more than a decade of reform in community colleges had failed to improve overall student outcomes. We attributed that failure to the organization and culture of the colleges, which were originally designed to expand student access to higher education rather than promote student completion. Under the typical arrangement, what we called the cafeteria-style approach, students face a sometimes bewildering array of courses, programs and support services without clear guidance on how to navigate them effectively.
The guided pathways model we described provides an organizing framework to pull together several intersecting reforms that affect the student experience. Those reforms encompass not only changes in college and program structure but also changes in pedagogy, advising and student support. The model we outlined is an integrated approach to college redesign aimed squarely at improving student completion and learning.
Rose speaks favorably of the overall model but raises two potential problems. First, faculty resistance may thwart the implementation of guided pathways, and our discussion of how to engage faculty members seems abstract. Second, students arrive at college with many outside challenges and little idea about what they want to do academically, and they will thus inevitably take a variety of different paths through college. Rose rightfully argues that some problems at community college will not be solved by the recommendations presented in the book and that those barriers may prevent the model from living up to its potential -- leading to discouragement and perhaps a backlash.
There is no question that guided pathways reforms will encounter many implementation challenges, and we did not intend to minimize the difficulty. In the book, we suggested that the implementation of guided pathways is at least a five-year process even under favorable circumstances. The structural reforms we recommend need to be coupled with real-world problem solving in the context of each college to overcome the challenges.
In fact, we are devoting the next phase of our research to refining what works and what doesn’t as colleges attempt the reforms. But we have already learned a lot from the field since the book was published. Institutions that seem to be making progress in implementing guided pathways reforms have leaders who have worked for a long time laying the groundwork for change -- any sort of change, not just guided pathways. Even in those institutions, dealing with the political and cultural dynamics that Rose describes is a constant (but necessary) process.
Many of those colleges have taken the first steps by engaging faculty members to examine and rethink their programs in light of what students need to learn to prepare for further education and employment -- in some cases, working with employers and faculty members from four-year colleges in the process. Colleges are bringing together advisers with academic departments to redesign the intake and first-year experiences of students to better help them explore and choose a program of study.
Recent work by Melinda Karp and other Community College Research Center researchers on the implementation of e-advising technologies (which are central to guided pathways) provides insight into the conditions under which colleges can accomplish such “transformational change.” They found that transformative change requires leadership at both the college and initiative levelswith a unified commitment to a shared vision for the reform and its goals. Still, we have far more to learn about how to effectively mobilize faculty and administrators in the implementation of guided pathways.
The Pressures on Students
Rose’s second point concerns the tremendous out-of-school challenges community college students can face that serve to undermine their academic success. As a result of those pressures, many students take convoluted pathways through colleges, stopping out and changing their purposes and goals. Guided pathways are not going to make those outside pressures fade away, but the reform model may indeed have more to offer the students who face such challenges than the smaller number of community college students who are well prepared, know what field they want to pursue and can attend full time and continuously.
First, the guided pathways model places particular importance on helping students explore and choose programs of study and potential careers. To be sure, many will change their minds, and that is fine. As it is, colleges do very little to enable students to explore options in a purposeful way so that they can see what is and what is not a good fit for them. Clarifying program pathways and improving the monitoring of progress for all students (especially by using default maps for program course sequences and tools that allow students to monitor their own progress) will be particularly helpful to part-time students or students who have to stop out.
More coherent pathways may also reduce the time to degree and thereby the probability that life events will derail a student’s college experience. And strong anecdotal evidence suggests that the guided pathways model increases the amount of quality time advisers spend with students, because they use less time scheduling students and more time talking about their plans. Early alert systems and predictive analytics are also being used to identify struggling students who need support but who probably would not have been identified in the past.
Rose certainly offers some important cautions. At the very least, he points to the need to make it clear that implementing guided pathways is a heavy lift that will take several years. In that process, will reformers be able to engage faculty members and administrators to redesign their colleges into coherent programs, and will they be able to help students overcome the difficult barriers they face, both in school and outside of it?
In the months since we published our book, reforms based on the guided pathways model have proliferated. We have identified numerous efforts by colleges in a majority of states to implement guided pathways at scale in their institutions. In almost all of those cases, the colleges are making such reforms without substantial grant funding.
At CCRC, we are now engaged in evaluations of some of those reforms in several states with an explicit goal of analyzing their successes and failures. Thus, over the next several years, we will get a much better sense of the ultimate effectiveness of the model. And we will be able to develop much better answers to the questions concerning implementation that Rose has raised.
Thomas Bailey is the George and Abby O'Neill Professor of Economics and Education at Teachers College, Columbia University, and director of the Community College Research Center. Shanna Smith Jaggars is director of student success research for the office of distance education and e-learning at the Ohio State University in Columbus and former assistant director of CCRC. Davis Jenkins is a senior research associate at CCRC and directs its work on guided pathways.
Temple University President Neil D. Theobald does not seem to be going away quietly.
Theobald on Friday was the subject of a strongly supportive press release listing his accomplishments and saying that his focus “is on students and faculty.” The release, issued by a consulting and crisis communications firm, came days after Temple's Board of Trustees recorded a vote of no confidence in Theobald and announced its plans to fire him.
The board scheduled a vote on Theobald's removal for Thursday. The vote was scheduled only weeks after the president abruptly removed Hai-Lung Dai as provost, surprising many at Temple. Dai's removal came as a $22 million financial aid overrun was revealed.
Friday's news release on Theobald does not reference his possible removal. Instead, it references “the significant highlights of his first four years in office.” Highlights listed include improving Temple's research classification, increasing its funded research, boosting fund-raising, raising the university's ranking and bringing in large, academically strong and diverse student classes.
The release also includes supportive quotes from faculty and alumni.
The Lumina Foundation last week released a new series of white papers on how public colleges are responding to performance-based funding policies in their states. The five papers by outside experts follow two previous batches the foundation funded and produced. The latest round focuses on how colleges can structure their academic programs and finances to support student success.
Lumina said the papers "focus on how institutions can align internal finances, student supports and incentives, and educational delivery to respond to funding formulas that create incentives for on-time degree completion and year-over-year increases in the numbers of students of color and at-risk students who earn degrees or other credentials."
Professors and staff at the University of Texas at Austin may ban guns from their private offices if they choose to do so when the state’s campus carry law takes effect next month, the Board of Regents for the university system voted Wednesday. The vote followed months of argument from professors that the new law puts them at risk, including during office hours. At the same meeting, the regents voted down a controversial proposal backed by Austin President Gregory Fenves that would have banned handguns with a loaded chamber, The Texas Tribune reported. The votes were part of campus-based discussions about how exactly to comply with the new law, which permits guns on campus, including in classrooms.