Hillary Clinton has announced a Bernie Sanders-like change to her higher education platform, but it ignores the fundamental problem of higher education: college has a completion problem, not a cost problem.
Understanding the problem of higher education as one of high costs obscures the failure of colleges to guide their students to a degree. Providing more funding to students will increase enrollment, but it won’t improve quality or success rates.
“By limiting national debate to the financial barriers that prevent students from earning a college degree, presidential candidates ignore the larger problem: we are an undereducated nation,” Nancy Zimpher, the chancellor of the State University of New York, wrote for Inside Higher Ed. “Too many of today’s students are unprepared to succeed in college and, worse, in life and work after they graduate.”
Colleges flaunt growing enrollment figures, but they’re slow to confront their paltry graduation rates. The Department of Education aids them, as they advertise the six-year graduation rate for a four-year degree instead of the four-year graduation rate.
The obsessive focus on cost is understandable — it simplifies the problem. If the only barrier between students and success is economic, then technocratic politicians can solve the problem. Make the government pay for college, graduation rates shoot up, inequality falls, and the American Dream marches forward.
Except that’s not the reality of college in America.
Though cost is undeniably a barrier for some students, encouraging every high school graduate to go to college explains much of why so many students drop out and why they struggle to repay debt.
The utopian “college for all” perspective pressures many students into a system they are unprepared for and in which they can’t succeed. It devalues alternatives by defining success only in terms of a college degree.
“Free college accomplishes very little if students continue to arrive on our campuses unprepared. Right now, half of all community college students enroll in at least one remedial course,” Zimpher wrote. “Far more often than not, students who aren’t ready for college-level course work when they start, don’t finish. They leave college with debt and no degree to show for it.”
The necessity of remedial courses for so many students reflects a deeper problem in American education before those students reach college. Colleges can’t be blamed for everything, nor can they be expected to be all things for all students. However, the nationwide issue of underprepared students who enroll in college necessitates a re-evaluation of the higher education system. Rather than operating from a “college for all” presumption, higher education policy would do better to adapt itself to reality.
Instead, Hillary Clinton’s new plan to eliminate tuition and encourage refinancing plans doubles down on a simple story with an easy solution. Tell voters the problem is cost, promise them more government subsidies, and reap the votes. Don’t let the historical result of expanded government largesse in the higher education sector — higher costs — change the policy.
Narrowing the conversation has made it more difficult to reform colleges in a way that will benefit students instead of politicians.
“If we define the problem as student debt, that leads to one set of policies – free college or loan refinancing – that tend to overlook the sector’s fundamental quality problems. Policies targeted at debt alone are shortsighted, address only the symptoms of a larger problem and may even encourage further tuition inflation,” Rooney Columbus wrote for the American Enterprise Institute.
In a bid to attract young voters, Clinton has favored political gain over results-based policy.