“It starts by making education a national mission… We shouldn’t be expecting less of our schools –- we should be demanding more. We shouldn’t be making it harder to afford college — we should be a country where everyone has a chance to go and doesn’t rack up $100,000 of debt just because they went.” President Obama, Osawatomie, Kansas, 12/06/2011 
While the “Occupy” movements seem to be quieting down this week, higher education received some attention from the White House. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan met with a select group of college presidents and provosts on Monday  to discuss how to make higher education more affordable. With his usual rhetorical grace, Obama referenced this issue again in Kansas on Tuesday.
The White House is concerned about the 36 million adults who have completed some college coursework but never finished their degrees. Not surprisingly, a shortage of cash and the stress of having to work while in school are the top reasons  for college dropouts. The Lumina Foundation  (whose CEO was included in the White House meeting) is concerned with outcomes and rethinking accreditation--looking for ways of acquiring knowledge that are more innovative and more relevant to the larger world.
As the parent of an ambivalent 18 year-old who—at this point in the application year—is probably taking a “gap year” after he finishes high school in June, I am concerned about whether Nick will stay in school if I take out loans for him. Since I do not have much extra cash in hand, Nick will need to participate in work-study options or keep an outside job in order to help with living expenses. But I sense my son's doubts about more school right now. Should I go ahead and apply for loans in case Nick changes his mind? Should I wait until he is more positive about college?
One issue discussed in the White House meeting on Monday was the need to increase the accountability for student loans; e.g., limiting the number of years a student may ask for money, requiring students to enroll full time, etc… These issues make sense to me. I do not really want Nick to attend college (and take out loans to pay for it) unless he intends to finish his degree. (Why should student loan companies behave any differently?)
Duncan and the president are urging educators to find creative solutions for retention while lowering tuition costs for traditional and non-traditional students. Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning  Initiative of free online course materials as well as their assessment technology were cited as examples of how technology is remaking the university experience. Students may teach themselves introductory knowledge and then pay for more specialized, interactive experiences. There are other exciting developments  in the “free class” arena that have been noted recently.
But free classes won’t pay my salary. My own school--Loyola University Chicago (LUC)--has revised the requirements of our core curriculum to ensure that students graduate in four years. Before revision our core requirements were built from an outdated hodgepodge of courses that represented scientific, ethical, social or artistic areas of knowledge. Students were required to complete a broad array. The politics surrounding the selection of these courses were abundant as the core courses were guaranteed consistent enrollment but often disinterested students. Creating a smaller array of compelling, multi-disciplinary core courses has been an outcome that has occupied LUC faculty and administrators for the last three years. Unfortunately, this kind of rigorous curriculum review is exactly the kind of work that needs to be done by faculty in order to assist students with acquiring degrees in a timely, affordable and more efficient manner.
In case Nick's plan to work and travel abroad does not work out next year, my son--with his mother's strong encouragement--is putting in a few late applications to state universities and art schools as a back-up. Maybe I’ll look into developing some free online courses…?