The Big Puzzle


Clinton’s “New College Compact” a ten-year, $350 billion federal commitment to higher education is appealing to people in universities. It is a detailed plan with many moving parts. To Clinton’s credit it’s a big picture approach, to solve a big puzzle.

A few weeks ago I referenced a study by the New York Federal Reserve Board that found two of every three dollars dedicated to subsidized student loans is carried from the banks and lenders, by students, to universities in support of projects that may not benefit educational outcomes. Cost increases for university attendance are campus business. Shifting the financial burden to future graduates is a rut-filled road, evidenced by a suffocating $1.2 trillion in student debt. And, it continues to climb.

Clinton’s “New College Compact” echoes the Five Not So Easy Pieces that emerged from the Republican primary debates a week ago. I summarized those five key parts — reduce debt load; reduce reliance on direct public support of the status quo; increase preparation and academic standards; don’t protect institutions from failure; and lastly find alternative means of access for all hard working, motivated and prepared learners at every level.” Higher quality, mission focused student-serving university experiences for multitudes of Americans, growing in every kind of diversity imaginable, is the goal. The combination of ideas demands that federal and state governments not try to control the university experience, but instead, localize decision-making to the university campuses and the students and families that ultimately pay for the cost of education; the educational market place will cause the cream to rise to the top. The dross will be burned off.

A century ago, before higher education lending was necessary – when the costs of college were minimal and the numbers of people that wanted access to a university education so small — all of the decisions were localized. A family and/or a student decided to make an investment in university attendance and found a way to pay for it.

Last year, low-cost, low-accountability lending continued to thrive as costs reached levels unimaginable just three decades ago. “Funny money” created by internet driven lender/borrower distance causes education loans to be capricious, not treated as seriously as borrowing for a Chevy. Nobody could show up and tow off the degree.

Without a marriage of institutional accountability for effective programs and individual responsibility for choices made all efforts fall short, from both sides of the aisle. This cold reality does not require state or federal oversight to the extent implied by current proposals. Institutional transparency regarding the value of degrees and the value of vocational training for many might make a more effective cost benefit mix; similar to the one 50 years ago when state college educations could be paid for by bagging groceries. A simplification and localization of college lending would create relationships that would strengthen both local economies and university excellence.

Senator Warner, supported by Senator Durbin, proposed a bill to allow refinancing of student loans. It should be implemented: It works for cars and houses, and even credit card debt, why not the most important investment any American family makes.

The G.I. Bill in its current form allocates funds directly to students rather than universities as the original version did. Political machinations of big promises and small deliveries by educational institutions dried up. The transfer of responsibility from state to student allowed the G.I. Bill to become educational legislation in powering the new American dream after WWII, equal to the Morrill Act implemented by President Lincoln and the congress at the height of the Civil War.

Visionary leadership for higher education is required at every level. No matter how brilliant a political plan, how motivated a federal or state legislature to effect public good, how empowered faculty members are to seek new insight and new knowledge, without an energized, motivated, and eyes-wide-open student all is for naught.

And that motivation comes from the soul of a person that pursues an aspiration doggedly, and can’t be bought, borrowed, or entitled. Such commitment is not a right but an opportunity, influenced by the dream of a better life, not hollow institutional or governmental promises or guarantees.

Neglect of the nearly incalculable power and irreplaceable necessity of the student’s “heart” will cause nothing to change save the cost of education: It will rise.

Educational finance should be raised to the power of one.

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