Getting Our Priorities Straight

In an ad released this week, Massachusetts Senate candidate Elizabeth Warren explains, “Our kids owe a trillion dollars in student loan debt.  That’s more than all the credit card debt in America combined.  Our kids are crushed by debt – and they didn’t go on a shopping spree; they got an education.”

She’s right.  America’s students are drowning in debt.  The Project on Student Debt estimates the average college student graduates with $25,000 in loans – and that number continues to grow each year.  The crushing debt has forced two in every five graduates to delay getting married, purchasing a home, or starting a family – a condition that will have lasting social and economic effects on America.

Warren, President Obama and their colleagues on the Left believe the only appropriate solution is to contribute more taxpayer dollars to the system and spread the burden of debt.  Like with healthcare reform, the liberal elite are looking to fund the problem, rather than fix it by actually reducing the cost of higher education in the United States.

For example, Washington has made it easy for students to obtain a government-sponsored loan to fund their education to a relatively unlimited extent.  As a result, cost doesn’t have to be a determining factor in many students’ collegiate decisions.  Instead, other factors, such as the campus atmosphere, become a priority.  By underwriting higher education in this way, colleges have no incentive to competitively price their institutions and the cost of higher education is increased across the system.

Federal education funding is also part of the problem.  Policymakers on the Left have become wrongly convinced that colleges and universities need more funding and to be shielded from public scrutiny.  This lack of accountability, however, has failed to lower prices or improve the value of higher education.

Between 1982 and 2007, college tuition and fees grew 439 percent while the median family income increased just 147 percent, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education.  During President Obama’s term alone, the average annual tuition for an in-state four-year college has risen 25 percent, or about $1,700.

While the financial burden is rising for students and taxpayers, the quality of higher education seems to be dissolving.  According to the Collegiate Learning Assessment, “Considering all four years of college … 36 percent of students did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning.”

Moreover, more than 50 percent of all graduates under the age of 25 are unemployed or underemployed, making it difficult to fulfill student loan repayment obligations.

Conservatives are beginning to come together around a different, less costly model for education reform that aims to hold colleges and universities accountable, celebrate student-focused programs, and promote outcome-based funding.

The clearest example of these reforms can be found in Texas.  Under the Perry administration, colleges were encouraged to conduct a more comprehensive evaluation of teachers, implement merit-based pay structures, and separate research and teaching budgets.  The public was empowered to hold each higher-education institution accountable for its results.  And a portion of the state’s higher education subsidies was redirected from colleges and universities to undergraduate and graduate students in the form of scholarships.

Gov. Perry also challenged Texas colleges and universities to develop a $10,000 (books included) Bachelor’s degree – made possible through technology that allows for interactive online classrooms.

A majority of America’s future workforce have taken on this debt, not because of irresponsible spending on their part, but because they wanted an education.  We need education policy proposals that focus on the students, on fundamentally decreasing the cost of a degree, and improving the quality of education we receive.

The education system will have lasting effects on America’s economy and society.  Today’s higher education system is producing tomorrow’s workforce, and it’s about time we start holding colleges and universities accountable and getting our priorities straight.