How to Fix American Higher Ed
American higher education is the envy of the world, and it’s also failing our students on a massive scale. How can both be true simultaneously? Our decentralized, competitive system of research institutions is a national treasure, unparalleled in human history. We have the best universities, best professors, and best systems of discovery, and we attract the best talent. But the American educational system leaves many high-school graduates woefully unprepared for work or for life, whether or not they go to college. We leave behind more souls than we uplift.
Most young Americans never earn a college degree, and far too many of those who do are poorly served by sclerotic institutions that offer regularly overpriced degrees producing too little life transformation, too little knowledge transmission, and too little pragmatic, real-world value. Well-meaning and incredibly gifted members of faculties, administrations, and boards of trustees genuinely want to help students move up the ladder, but the current incentives don’t encourage the kind of programmatic innovation and pluralism that can help poor and middle-class Americans build a sufficiently durable foundation.
Decades into a digital revolution that will make lifelong work in any single sector rare, we need dynamism—not status quo–ism—in higher education. In our knowledge-intensive economy, we will need an ever-expanding, highly educated workforce. As important, we will need a broader base of wise, gritty learners. We cannot build what we need if we assume that the developmental experience of every 20-year-old will be the same.
We must build a university network that enhances social mobility, instead of reinforcing privilege. We need higher education to transform more lives by offering more accountability, more experimentation, more institutional diversity, more intellectual curiosity, more adaptive learning, and more degrees and certifications. We need a rethink, renewal, and expansion—tinkering around the edges won’t cut it.
Sadly, Washington is getting ready to subsidize failure. A mega-bailout in the form of student-debt forgiveness would prop up and excuse the broken parts of this system—missing the opportunity to go bigger and help college-age Americans from every class and community learn skills, enhance persistence, find work, and embrace the dynamic opportunities of the coming quarter century. Massive forgiveness of student debt would most help upper-class Americans who are going to be just fine without a bailout. It’s a regressive mistake.
Only about one in eight Americans carries student-loan debt; of the $1.6 trillion or so of debt that students have racked up, 56 percent is held by white-collar workers with advanced degrees. About one-third is owed by the wealthiest 20 percent of households, and nearly two-fifths was acquired in pursuit of graduate credentials. The fact is, the typical student-debt holder is more likely to be white, is more educated, and has more earning potential than the median American.
Washington’s debt conversation blurs the rather obvious distinction between doctors and dropouts. There are at least three kinds of debt: debt for specialized degrees that generally lead to high-paying careers, in fields such as law and medicine; debt for post-college education, such as a master’s degree in public policy; and debt for undergraduate courses, some of which lead to degrees and some of which lead to dropping out. Most doctors and lawyers are going to be able to pay off their loans just fine, and graduate students made the adult decision to assume debt. We need to think about the third group—and the system that encourages students to take on so much debt at such a young age with such an uncertain payoff. Rather than wiping the slate clean and repeating the same mistakes, Washington should take a hard look at reforming a broken system. The current debate is a missed opportunity.
A student-debt bailout rewards wealthy kids at the expense of middle-class families, but even more destructively, it perpetuates the lie that our current pedagogical arrangements are sufficient. We should instead admit our underperformance and find ways to introduce alternative approaches—overhauling everything from the credit-hour system to the accrediting cartels; developing new financial models that reconsider the standardization of prices and four-year degrees; experimenting with payment as a portion of future earnings rather than forcing students to take on debt on the first day of registration. To help those Americans who most need a hand, we need to tie public expenditures more tightly to student outcomes. Now is the time to build.
Far too often, higher education equates value with exclusivity, and not with outcomes. The paradigmatic schools that dominate higher-ed discussions in the pages of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post measure themselves by how many high-school seniors they reject, rather than by how many they successfully launch, by how much they bolster the moral and intellectual development of the underprivileged, or even by a crude utilitarian calculus such as the average earnings of their recent graduates. Elite schools compete largely to attract greater numbers of applications and then to reject larger shares of those prospective students. Rejection rates north of 90 percent are seen as hallmarks of “excellence.” The “value” of an education in this decadent system is measured before a student registers for her first class, whether the course is meaningful or not.
Exclusion-based ranking treats education like a luxury good and sells four-year degrees like Louis Vuitton handbags. They’re valuable because they’re expensive and exclusive. Our most desirable universities build ivory towers on top of pedestals surrounded by fences marked keep out. The famed Harvard Business School professor Clay Christensen argued before his death in 2020 that much of what is wrong with higher education lies in our political class’s fetishizing of the Ivy League, and the consequent status-chasing of so many “almost Ivies” in pursuing activities that help in rankings but do little for students or social mobility. Too many policy makers, thought leaders, and donors assume that most college experiences are like an Ivy League experience. The data tell a different story.
Thirty-one million people in this country are between the ages of 18 and 24. Thirteen million of them are current undergraduates; almost three-quarters of those are enrolled in four-year-degree programs. By contrast, 63,000 kids are enrolled in Ivy League undergraduate programs—that’s 0.2 percent of the 18-to-24-year-old population. Even if we add in all the undergraduates at the two dozen other Ivy-like institutions, we are still below 1 percent of the age cohort—yet this tiny subset of the population dominates the imagination of administrators, journalists, and lawmakers. Here’s the thing: Like the doctors and lawyers who pay off their debts, these kids are going to be just fine after graduation, tapping the networks of contacts they’ve acquired. Reform should be aimed at improving the experience of non-Ivy students, whether they’re enrolled in traditional four-year programs or not.
The biggest problem facing most young Americans isn’t student debt; it’s that our society has lost sight of the shared goal of offering them a meaningful, opportunity-filled future with or without college. We’ve lost the confidence that a nation this big and broad can offer different kinds of institutional arrangements, suited to different needs. What we say we want for Americans entering adulthood and what we actually offer them are disastrously mismatched. Debt forgiveness would not just be regressive; it would be recalcitrant. A massive bailout would increase the cost of education and stifle the kind of renaissance higher ed desperately needs.
Debt forgiveness would pour gasoline on the bonfire of education costs. According to the Education Data Initiative, “the average cost of college tuition and fees at public 4-year institutions has climbed 179.2% over the last 20 years for an average annual increase of 9.0%.” (For comparison, personal health-care costs—another disproportionately inflationary sector—have increased 58 percent over the same period.) The universities that take in federal dollars without useful tools to measure student outcomes have had too little motivation to resist price hikes. Meanwhile, students are taking out huge loans at artificially suppressed interest rates without considering whether their degree will justify the debt. Right now, there aren’t many guardrails against inflation on the supply or demand sides.
The debt conversation is dominated by demagoguery. Politicians who want an easy fix are keen on debt forgiveness. The talking points sound great. Everyone wants to seem compassionate and generous. The truth is more complicated. But at a minimum, if the system is so broken that Washington is debating a trillion-dollar-plus bailout, isn’t it worth reforming the system so this doesn’t immediately happen again? To ignore root causes is like cleaning up a polluted beach downstream, while leaving the factory upstream pumping ever more contaminants into the water. We need to be talking about institutional reform.
Conversation about education reform shouldn’t sound like grumpy old men grumbling about students choosing to be history majors. The liberal arts inarguably make this world a better place. More students should be intellectually curious about history, literature, and ethics. But technical training and acquiring credentials for the job market have a place as well. There’s no reason trade schools need to fight the liberal arts in a zero-sum game. We need to think through how we create more and better of both opportunities.
The world is changing, and we need to promote life-long learning and institutions that can provide it. We need far, far more Americans to fall in love with education, theoretical and practical. That means we need more occasions to learn, more entry points. That’s not going to happen without more experimentation.
Programs offering bachelor’s degrees are stuck in a predictable mold: Most classes are between three and four credit hours; each semester’s load is between 12 and 18 credit hours; each semester’s length is 15 weeks; each year is two semesters; four years makes a degree. In an economy and culture as dynamic as ours, this much standardization makes little sense. Not every 18-year-old is going to college full-time for four years (actually 5.5 years at many “four-year schools,” but we’ll set that ugly fact aside for now). Few students are taking classes at 8 a.m. on Monday—and fewer still are taking Friday classes. Not everyone is going to do eight semesters in a row. Our ossified, one-size-fits-all approach isn’t working for the majority of current students—let alone for the potential students sitting on the sidelines.
Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s landmark 2011 study on college outcomes, Academically Adrift, tested 2,300 college students on what they learned in college. After freshman and sophomore years, 45 percent demonstrated essentially no learning improvements; after four years, 36 percent of students still demonstrated no improvements in key areas, including writing and critical thinking. Despite these embarrassing results, reform didn’t come.
Lifelong learning needs to help people move in and out of the classroom. We need people to be able to move in and out of school and the military, in and out of school and the Peace Corps, in and out of school and religious missions, in and out of school and manual labor.
We need dozens of new models that allow students to move from the world of real work into the classroom and back, and forth, again and again. Some students should still immerse themselves in college, using a traditional eight-semester model. Some students will thrive if they work and learn at the same time. Some students will choose to travel and come back to school, or to learn on the road. Some students will opt for project-driven approaches that yield a marketable credential.
Most colleges today underinvest in student advising and mentoring, and in intensive internships and career development. Our standard testing practices encourage mindless cramming and dumping, rather than critical engagement. All students would benefit from more frequent, low-stakes, real-time, individualized assessments. A thriving system will cultivate a student’s self-awareness about different learning styles and help them develop a style that works for them.
Why can’t we have more travel options, more service options, more intensive internships, more work opportunities? A wise fifth-grade math teacher knows that more student curiosity is awakened by story problems and riddles than by opening class on day one with a mathematical theory. So, too, a pedagogically aware teacher of 19-year-olds realizes that a Socratically alive student usually begins with a genuine question, rather than with the professor’s declared truth. This happens more often via real-world struggle than via voice-of-God content bellowed from the “sage on the stage.” Not every course should have three to five weekly hours in class. Not every semester should have 15 weeks, nor every program eight semesters. Most simply: Not every major should have the same basic calendar building blocks that the accreditation bureaucracies inflexibly demand.
Our monolithic system lacks incentives to empower social entrepreneurs to spark intellectual curiosity. We would likely be better off if we conceived of higher education as three staggered 12-to-18-month periods of learning and work, rather than a single four- or five-year attempt.
The Higher Education Act hasn’t been reauthorized since 2008, just a year after the first iPhone came out and started a new era of mobile-information consumption. It’s time for an update that recognizes the modern realities of education and workforce demands. To do that we need reforms in two broad categories: institutions and money. First, how do we increase the kinds of institutional and programmatic opportunities that awaken students to lifelong learning? Second, how do we reform public investment and promote alternative funding models for this new, more diverse ecosystem?
No single idea will cut it. More is the key: more flexibility, more schools, more pricing models, more degrees, more openness to innovation. In private conversations, even current university presidents often desire more programmatic flexibility and innovation, but believe they can’t make many first moves alone. Here is a partial list of steps we can take together to empower them—and other as-yet-unknown innovators.
- End the tyranny of four-year degrees. Just one in four college-goers is a dependent, full-time student, working fewer than 16 paid hours a week. Different institutions serve different constituencies, so different schools should be competing for different students with different goals. That so many schools are designed on a single model while serving students who have very different needs and desires is a big part of why so many colleges are financially shipwrecked, and why the students who attend them too often end up the same.
- Ditch the credit hour. Education is measured in credit hours, a relic of the industrial economy of the early 20th century. Credit hours tell us little about what students have learned or how much they’ve grown, only how long butts have been in classroom seats. That might have been moderately adequate for the early and mid-1900s, but the model is not well suited to an age filled with the promise of individually tailored instruction. As a history professor, I saw more life change in 15-person seminars than in 200-person lecture classes, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that intimacy beats scale in every discipline. In much math pedagogy, neither 15:1 nor 200:1 student classes are ideal; rather, an infinity-to-one online delivery system augmented by 1:1 and 3:1 breakout tutorials might propel more learners forward faster.
- Rethink metrics for teaching and learning. Technology allows individualized programs to guide students, focusing high-touch professor time on yet-to-be-mastered complex material. Students can move at a pace that isn’t available in a traditional, exclusively synchronous classroom. And teachers can gain greater flexibility and adaptability, paired with more rigorous and more transparent accountability.
- Encourage corporate-led certification programs. Programs led by the private sector that offer students easily transferable skills or guaranteed employment after graduating (for example, Walmart’s Live Better U and Google’s Career Certificates) are more economical and more secure for some students than a traditional diploma. Federal policy should reward providers that create high-quality alternative pathways for acquiring solid skills and secure jobs, even if they are not traditional institutions. Because we’re measuring knowledge rather than credits, we should think about new kinds of certification, too, including stackable micro-certifications that people can carry with them as they move between jobs and locations.
Each of these changes will depend on breaking up the accreditation cartels. College presidents tell me that the accrediting system, which theoretically aims to ensure quality and to prevent scammers from tapping into federal education dollars, actually stifles programmatic innovation inside extant colleges and universities aiming to serve struggling and underprepared students in new ways. In health care, it has helped create a critical shortage of trained clinical staff at all levels. Higher-education leaders want greater flexibility to experiment and grow. Much of the monotony in higher education is a result of the accreditation process. Accreditation should protect students from snake-oil salesmen, but unfortunately it has become its own racket. Existing schools try to lock out potential competitors. Timidity, ideological homogeneity, and red tape are all structurally encouraged by the accreditation processes. We must demand radical reform—or even the full breakup of the system. Regional agencies, private associations, and approaches unburdened by red tape can measure quality and protect student interests—so long as radical transparency is required.
Just as there’s no single model for institutional reform, there’s no single funding solution. We need more ways to promote net-price transparency, more ways to target funding, and more ways to tie funding to outcomes. Here are a few places to start.
- Target funding to better help students. Start with means-testing grants and loans. The federal government’s large-scale intervention in higher-ed funding has gone hand in hand with reckless loan practices. Loans given to students to attend schools that offer little to no return on investment, to poor families (through parent PLUS loans) who have limited ability to repay, or to graduate students (through grad PLUS loans) who pursue expensive and unremunerative graduate or professional degrees are a scandal. The system tells high-school students with absolute certainty that a college degree is their golden ticket, it pushes them to take on massive debt, and then it turns a cold shoulder when they drop out or graduate with undervalued degrees. For kids who weren’t prepared for college, it’s downright predatory. Grants and loans need to be tied to realistic assessments of a student’s projected ability to pay them back. The money ought to be limited to true educational expenses—all public money should fund learning, not subsidize high-end living accommodations off campus. The federal government’s careless loan practices sound compassionate, but they impoverish many people who would have been better off without so much debt.
- Align government policies to encourage experimentation. Washington isn’t fast enough or flexible enough to solve this many problems on its own. States have a giant role to play. We could increase federal aid to states that meet outcomes-based criteria. Affordable pricing and measurable student success should generate increased federal funding. We’ve seen state programs like Georgia’s Helping Outstanding Pupils Educationally and Zell Miller Scholarships tie state investment to improving academic performance. Similarly, the Texas State Technical College system has worked to align funding with earnings outcomes. The Cicero Institute looked at technical colleges in Texas, which receive additional funding for each student who holds a good job in the first five years after graduation. After the changes went into effect, the starting earnings for new graduates increased by 61 percent.
- Make higher-ed institutions put more skin in the game. It’s worth considering better mechanisms for future income-sharing arrangements between students and universities. Right now, schools don’t gain much when students succeed, and they remain too insulated when debt-loaded students fail. At most universities, your personal success matters to altruistic professors and mentors, but it doesn’t matter much to the billing department or the bottom line—schools just need the tuition money to flow. Students and their colleges should have a shared, long-term interest in students’ success.
- Differentiate prices by field of study. Presently, different majors at the same school are priced the same, even though some place embarrassingly few demands on students. Different majors generate widely divergent labor-market outcomes, and so provide varied returns on students’ investment of money and time. Students should have access to more of this information at the front end. Like the rest of the proposals here, there are unintended consequences to be avoided, but it’s a debate worth having. Different products and services have different cost structures, and some loans are riskier than others. We should reflect that basic reality by making prices transparent and segmenting different fields of study. Today’s lack of price and outcome transparency encourages students to take on large loan burdens in pursuit of unremunerative degrees. (One study found that 28 percent of bachelor’s degrees programs do not have even a mildly positive net return on investment.) Ditching obsolete pricing models doesn’t mean we have to let students sink or swim on their own.
These are a few starter models. We need many more.
Over the past several decades, our sights have narrowed and our system has atrophied. But now we find ourselves in the middle of an exciting and transformative era. America needs a resilient, high-octane workforce of lifelong learners. We need to build and rebuild the schools and programs to help them succeed. This is what America has always been about—looking ahead, founding institutions, and solving problems.
Amnesties and bailouts are not solutions. We need to think bigger, and to reconsider the different forms that American success might take. We need an economy that rewards lots of skills, not just those prized by a narrow upper tier.
There are far too few innovators, too few institutions, too few models, and too few programs to meet the full range of needs. More schools—including those yet to be created—should compete to change the lives of their students, rather than compete to reject more applicants. We need more degrees, more liberal-arts programs, and more technical certifications. We need more nontraditional students and more nontraditional school years. And we need to reinvigorate the imagination and the energy to design and pave new pathways to success for every American with the appetite to go after it.
Debt forgiveness misses the moment by rewarding and reinforcing a broken system. Future generations of Americans deserve access to a higher-education sector that works. We owe it to our kids and grandkids to build something far better. Success—theirs and ours—depends on it.