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The problem with Trump's proposal on student loans and the liberal arts (essay)

The most significant challenge facing higher education today is our growing economic segregation. College completion rates for those at the lowest socioeconomic rungs continue to lag far behind those of their wealthier peers, not only due to diminished financial resources but also because of a lack of social and cultural capital. Redressing this phenomenon will require offering an education that prepares each and every student for success in work and life, while inspiring them to take seriously their social responsibilities in a society plagued by persistent inequities.

In fact, the board of directors of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, where I serve as president, expanded the organization’s mission in 2012 to embrace both inclusive excellence and liberal education as the foundation for institutional purpose and educational practice. The addition of inclusive excellence as one of AAC&U’s foundational principles reflects the ideal that access to educational excellence for all students -- not just the privileged -- is essential not only for our nation’s economy but, more important, for our democracy. Democracy cannot flourish in a nation divided into haves and have nots.

The equity imperative as an essential component of educating for democracy has been at the forefront of my mind during the past few weeks of nonstop coverage of the Republican and Democratic National Conventions. I have been particularly focused on the potential impact of various higher education policy proposals on AAC&U’s objective of advancing a public-spirited vision of inclusive excellence as inextricably linked to liberal education.

While higher education issues were pretty much absent from the Republican convention speeches, an earlier proposal by Donald Trump, developed by Sam Clovis, his educational policy adviser, to restrict eligibility for student loans in order to make it more difficult for those at “nonelite colleges” to major in the liberal arts previously caught my attention. Indeed, I am convinced that, if enacted, it would risk exacerbating what Thomas Jefferson termed an “unnatural aristocracy,” where only the wealthy gain the benefits of the kind of broad and engaged liberal education that Clovis himself insists is the absolute foundation for success in life.

Trump’s proposal makes at least two serious errors about the value of a college degree in today’s world. It assumes, first, that one’s undergraduate major is all that matters and, second, that only some majors will prepare students for success in the workplace. The evidence from AAC&U’s own surveys of employers, and from many economists, suggests that this is simply not the case. As noted in the title of our 2013 report of employers’ views, “It Takes More Than a Major,” more than 90 percent of employers agree that “a graduate’s ability to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems is more important than their undergraduate major.” Students can develop such cross-cutting skills in a wide variety of chosen disciplines, if the courses are well designed and integrated within robust, problem-based general education programs.

A student’s undergraduate experience, and how well the experience advances critical learning outcomes, is what matters most, with 80 percent of employers agreeing that all students need a strong foundation in the liberal arts and sciences. A liberal education fosters the capacity to write, speak and think with precision, coherence and clarity; to propose, construct and evaluate arguments; and to anticipate and respond to objections. And it offers what employers value the most: the ability to apply knowledge in real-world settings, to engage in ethical decision making and to work in teams on solving unscripted problems with people whose views differ from one’s own. In a globally interdependent yet multicultural world, it is precisely because employers place a particular premium on innovation in response to rapid change that they emphasize students’ experiences with diverse populations, rather than narrow technical training.

The data confirm what we already know: students in all undergraduate majors can and should gain the outcomes of a broad liberal education. Therefore, we need to be vigilant in rebutting accusations of irrelevance and illegitimacy leveled specifically at the liberal arts and sciences and to recognize those charges for what they are: collusion in the growth of an intellectual oligarchy in which only the very richest and most prestigious institutions preserve access to the liberal arts traditions. Trump’s ostensible presumption that college is only about workforce training is dangerous to our democratic future.

Of course, it is unclear whether a proposal to use student loans to steer students away from certain majors could be implemented, given the challenges of predicting career trajectories based on majors and types of institutions. (After all, I was a philosophy major who began at a community college under funds from the Comprehensive Employment Training Act, Pell Grants and Perkins Loans.)

Still, in order to restore public trust in higher education and destabilize the cultural attitudes at the basis of Trump’s policy proposal, we need to demonstrate in a more compelling way to those outside of the academy, Democrats and Republicans alike, the extent to which we actually are teaching students 21st-century skills, preparing them to solve our most pressing global, national and local problems within the context of the workforce, not apart from it. To do so, our institutions of higher education must come together to engage in an honest assessment of our effectiveness and undertake a collaborative exchange of best practices. Our shared commitments to equity, democratic and economic vitality, and inclusive excellence demand nothing less.

Lynn Pasquerella is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

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Democratic platform spurs excitement for advocates of free community college

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After taking a backseat to debate over free tuition at four-year public colleges, free community college advocates see chance to build momentum.

Feds Cut Aid Eligibility at 3 Medtech College Campuses

The U.S. Department of Education on Tuesday said it was cutting off federal student aid eligibility at three Medtech College campuses, located in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. A department investigation found "egregious misrepresentation of job placement rates" by the Medtech campuses, alleging that the for-profit college overstated placement rates to its accreditor, the department and prospective students.

The three campuses enroll a total of roughly 750 students, the department said, and received about $16 million in federal grant and loan aid in 2014-15. To continue to be eligible for federal aid at its other campus locations, the company must post a letter of credit equal to 80 percent of its annual federal aid revenue, worth about $37 million.

Slight Drop in Colleges in Heightened Cash Monitoring

The Education Department has released a new list of colleges and universities under heightened cash monitoring, which means that they are subject to far greater oversight than other colleges in federal student aid programs. A variety of compliance issues can land a college on the list. Most of the colleges on the list are for-profit institutions.

The latest list, which has 513 colleges on it, was current as of June 1 and may be found here. That total is down slightly from the 528 colleges on the March 1 list.

The Education Department started releasing the lists last year in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by Inside Higher Ed.

Layoffs for Largest Boot Camp Provider

General Assembly, the largest coding and skills boot-camp provider, has laid off 50 employees, which is roughly 7 percent of the New York City-based company's work force, The Wall Street Journal reported last week. Jake Schwartz, the company's CEO and cofounder, told the newspaper that the layoffs were to make sure “we are completely self-sustainable and ready to control our own destiny for as long as it takes.”

Access to venture capital recently has tightened for many start-ups, the WSJ reported. General Assembly reportedly brought in $70 million in revenue last year. The company plans to make an announcement soon about new strategic investments, Schwartz said, while it seeks to continue growing a relatively new corporate training program.

Amazon-Wells Fargo partnership on private student loans troubles consumer advocates

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The online retail giant's promise to provide "discounted" student loans through a new partnership with Wells Fargo elicits concerns from consumer advocates about possible duping of students.

Education Dept. spells out new student borrower protections

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Education Department's 56-page memo details new guidelines for student loan servicers.

Donations Exceed $180,000 for Student Living in Tent

A second-semester student at Gordon State College in Georgia has received more than $180,000 in donations after campus police officers discovered him living in a tent near a college parking lot. Two officers responded to a call about the tent on July 9, the Barnesville Herald-Gazette reported, and asked the man inside to come out with his hands up. The occupant, 19-year-old Fredrick Barley, emerged and presented police with his Gordon State student ID. He explained that he’d ridden six hours from his hometown on his brother’s 20-inch bicycle ahead of classes resuming to register for courses and find a job. He carried with him only a duffel bag, a tent, a box of cereal and two gallons of water, according to the Herald-Gazette.

Barley reportedly had been living on campus for three days when he was found, riding around on the undersize bike to complete job applications. The police officers took Barley to a motel and each paid for one night’s stay. He was scheduled to move into his dorm on Monday. “Fred told us this would be his second semester at Gordon as a biology major and we could tell he was serious about his education,” Maria Gebelein, one of the officers, told the Herald-Gazette. “We helped him because we felt it was the right thing to do.”

Police shared Barley’s story on Facebook, and local residents soon delivered gift cards, food, clothes and new mountain bike. An online donations page exceeded its original goal of $150,000, and Barley found a job at a local restaurant washing dishes. “I was not expecting any of this support and am in awe of how this community has come together to help me,” said Barley, who hopes to major in biology and attend medical school. “I was just trying to go to school, find a job and make it on my own.”

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Treasury Finds Limited Success in Default Collection Pilot

Earlier this month, the Treasury Department announced in a blog post on its site that in a pilot program to collect defaulted federal student loans, it had lower collection levels than private collection companies.

As New America policy analysts Ben Barrett and Alexander Holt write, the pilot program was launched to find out if the agency could collect loan debts without aggressive tactics often used by private contractors -- a source of complaints from borrowers. But the department only managed to resolve 4.4 percent of loans made to 5,729 borrowers, compared to 5.5 percent resolved by a control group of private companies contracted through the department.

Treasury staff members limited contacts with borrowers to one call per week and did not threaten wage garnishment during the first 11 months of the pilot program. The results of the pilot, Barrett and Holt write, indicate that “if we are interested in rehabilitating borrowers, the answer is not to be more gentle.”

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A free or no-loans approach will undermine access to college (essay)

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.

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