Last week, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings laid out a promising agenda  to keep our colleges and universities strong in this demanding age. As she rightly noted in her comments  on the report of Commission on the Future of Higher Education, America's public and private institutions of higher education are the envy of the world.
But as we work to deal with the immense challenges of this rapidly changing time, it’s vital for our colleges and universities -- fine as they now are -- to be open to change, and Congress, the Department of Education, and the higher education community will need to work well together to find the way forward.
The commission  and the Secretary are right to call attention to the nation’s unfinished business on college access, affordability, and accountability. It's unacceptable that the average student now graduates with $17,500 in student loan debt, 73 percent of all colleges still find it necessary to offer remedial classes for entering students, and that only 15 percent of African American students and 10 percent of Latino students obtain bachelor's degrees today, compared to 30 percent of white students.
As many have said, the Commission’s best recommendation is for an increase in the Pell Grant, so that the average award will cover 70 percent of the typical tuition at a four-year public college, compared to only 44 percent of the cost today. Unfortunately, Secretary Spellings backed away from that specific recommendation in her remarks, calling instead only for an “increase” in need-based grant aid. For the past four years, the maximum Pell Grant has been frozen at $4,050 a year, contributing to the crushing debt that burdens so many today. As a result, the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance estimates that up to 2.4 million qualified students  will fail to obtain bachelor's degrees this decade because of financial barriers.
It’s also disappointing that neither the commission nor the Secretary went further to discuss needed reforms of the federal student loan programs, which provide over $60 billion a year to support students’ postsecondary education -- more than any other source. During the commission's deliberations, Chairman Charles Miller said he wanted to "avoid getting bogged down" in specific discussions about these complicated programs. The commission’s report, which issues a broad call for the entire student financial aid system to be restructured, reflects that.
Had the commission peeled back the layers, it would have quickly uncovered the many details of federal student loan programs that bedevil students and families every day in their struggle to pay for college. The government squanders billions of education dollars each year to guarantee that private lenders bear virtually no risk when they make loans. It rewards lenders more for collecting on defaulted loans than for keeping borrowers in good standing. It inexplicably favors subsidies for private lenders, instead of the government’s own far less expensive Direct Loan program.
Obvious reforms could make the current dysfunctional student loan system far more effective. We could generate $13 billion in new Pell Grants over the next 10 years simply by allowing fair competition between the privately funded loan programs and the Direct Loan program. We could expand income-contingent repayment for student loans, so that borrowers would not have to allocate more than 15 percent of their monthly income to loan re-payments. We could grant loan forgiveness after 10 years to those in public service professions such as teaching, public health, and law enforcement. No debate about the future of higher education can move forward effectively without addressing this urgent problem. It's time to throw the money lenders out of the temple of higher education.
It's also time to give higher priority to community colleges. They now enroll 45 percent of all undergraduates, but they’re frequently an afterthought in discussions of education policy and funding. Community colleges do more to promote college access and equity than any other aspect of higher education. More is demanded of them as well -- from educating first-time, low-income, and immigrant students to educating adults seeking new careers and workers seeking better skills for their current jobs.
Community colleges received little mention in the commission’s report or the Secretary's speech, but many of their recommendations are directly applicable to two-year programs. In Massachusetts, for example, community colleges work directly with high schools to align the school curriculum to college-level work. They help underprepared and nontraditional students advance to college. Through their links to area Workforce Investment Boards and regional development, they advance the commission’s recommendation that higher education do more to promote career pathways for students.
Implementing these recommendations may be easy -- but moving forward with others will be difficult, such as the commission's call for colleges to measure student learning through standardized assessments. In addition, many states -- including Massachusetts -- have developed databases to track students' progress through higher education, but significant questions exist about creating a national database. Obviously, these ideas require serious study and discussion involving both the higher education community and Congress.
Sixty years ago, our country and our higher education system stood at a similar crossroads. Hundreds of thousands of G.I.’s had returned home from World War II, eager for new skills, new opportunities, and their chance for the American Dream. The Cold War presented a frontal challenge to our place in the world. In response, President Harry Truman appointed the nation’s first Commission on Higher Education, an unprecedented effort that brought an end to racial discrimination in college admissions, built on the success of the G.I. Bill by enacting new grant and scholarship programs for students, and spurred the rigorous development of our community colleges.
With that same kind of vision today, we can use our remarkable system of higher education to help turn this era of globalization into a new era of opportunity for America. Secretary Spellings and her commission deserve our gratitude for launching this dialogue. Now it’s up to all of us to chart the rest of the path.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) is the senior Democrat on the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.