DESPITE CRITICISM, APUSH IS BETTER

The College Board’s new AP U.S. history standards (APUSH) remain in the news. A recent piece by Stanley Kurtz suggests that despite the revisions, the standards remain unsatisfactory and will prevent the instruction of more traditional topics in U.S. history. A piece in EDWeek, on the other hand, has quotes from historians mostly praising the revisions, along with a complaint from a so-called human-rights writer, who suggests that the changes will “foster divisiveness” by failing to sufficiently stress racial tension throughout U.S. history.

A reminder on the nature of the controversy. The 2014 standards generated considerable criticism (including from me) primarily on four grounds, the last three of which I shared:

(1)   The guidelines inappropriately stressed liberal themes at the expense of conservative ones.

(2)   The guidelines sought to impose a race/class/gender pedagogy, to the extent of diminishing the role played by important figures in U.S. history, such as the Founders.

(3)   The guidelines’ addition of a unit preceding the British settlement of North America was faddish.

(4)   The guidelines troublingly conflicted skills with content, suggesting that students could learn a “skill” (such as reading primary documents) regardless of the content of the skill-related item.

I had argued that the second and fourth items were the most significant defects. The fourth brought to mind the dispositions battle, in which NCATE touted a skill “disposition to promote social justice” as a way of denying academic freedom the students. Similarly, the implication was that a student could master the skill through reading Federalist 10—or by reading the diary of an 18th century midwife, suggesting that the two were somehow of equal importance.

But the revised version of the standards, as I previously noted, eliminates many of these problems. The skills/content conflation is gone, and the standards add a section on the importance of the Founders. Language is toned down; one example cited in EdWeek is the cutting of a description of Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric as “bellicose.” I’ve probably used such a description in a lecture in the past—but guidelines should strive to be as neutral as possible in language, and the shift was appropriate. The inclusion of the pre-British settlement section remained, although this material would better be covered in a European history class.

Kurtz, however, suggests that these changes are little more than token. He makes three principal argument. First, he notes that the revised guidelines continue to give insufficient attention to diplomatic and military history. I agree. But, as Kurtz also notes, “The most significant changes to the APUSH framework are the removal of controversial phrases, along with a general paring down of the content.” Paring down the content means that teachers can—and must—look to state educational guidelines, which have a much greater role for traditional topics. I would prefer to see more respect for state guidelines, but that wasn’t likely.

Second, Kurtz cites the experience of an outstanding AP U.S. history teacher, who went to a teacher-training session and got exposed to a lovefest for Howard Zinn. I’ve no doubt that this occurred as described—though I’ve done many of these seminars and have never had such an experience (here’s a link to my latest session, on the Cold War)—but even if APUSH were wholly revised, a Zinn-fest would still be possible.

Third, Kurtz argues that the new guidelines insufficiently stress American exceptionalism. The problem here, however, is that this phrase has become quite ideologically charged. (For that reason, I don’t believe I’ve ever used it in my own right in a class lecture, though of course I’ve noted when figures covered in the class, such as Woodrow Wilson, have operated under such a theory.) There’s also no historiographical consensus on what American exceptionalism is, or whether it’s even accurate to say that it exists. Accordingly, I didn’t expect to see the term play a large role in the revised standards, and am not surprised at the outcome.

Overall, with the exception of the pre-settlement era addition, I continue to think the revised standards are a vast improvement over their predecessor.

WESLEYAN BATTLES DRUGS AND FRATS

Wesleyan University made national news this past February when 12 students were hospitalized for drug overdoses and five were arrested on drug-related charges, amid fears that the drug culture was far advanced at the school.

The university chose last month–a nice, quiet time, with no students on campus–to ramp up its long-term war on fraternities in a quiet way. It announced a revision of the student handbook to prohibit students “from using any…property that the University informs students are off-limits for health, safety or conduct reasons at the University’s discretion.  These prohibitions include using such houses or property as residences, taking meals at such houses or property, and participating in social activities or otherwise being present at such houses or property.”

Translated into English, this was an attempt to deprive one former fraternity and two existing fraternities – one male and the other co-ed – of any ability to generate income, so the university would be able to acquire their historic structures at distress-sale prices.  As Wesleyan President Michael Roth wrote to Board Chairman Joshua Boger on August 20, 2014– in what he expected to be a confidential email– “If we don’t close the houses with the hopes of acquiring them, then we shouldn’t go down this road at all.”

Now it seems that decades of PC zealotry and drug culture are hitting Wesleyan where it hurts – in its fund-raising pocketbook.  In a July 30 email to “Wesleyan Fund Volunteers,” the university’s Director of Annual Giving, Charles Fedolfi, said he shares the worries of the Fund’s co-chairs. “We face a challenge in convincing our classmates to contribute EVERY year…. Our year-over-year giving has fallen to the low 40% to high 30% range…[and] we had approximately 400 [sic] fewer donors than the prior year (9,712 v. 10,209) due primarily to the number of alumni who did not renew their gifts.”

The obvious question is why 497 donors, nearly 5% of the alumni donor base, decided not to give. Maybe they think their alma mater is off course, and are voting with their wallets.

The Fading of Liberal Education

The best ranking of undergraduate institutions by their general education is ACTA’s What Will They Learn? project. The evaluation looks at seven core subjects (composition, literature, foreign languages, U.S. government or history, economics, math, and science) and tallies whether schools require all students to show sufficient knowledge and proficiency in each one. The ACTA approach goes straight to the heart of learning, the content of the curriculum. Not the applicant size and selectivity, not diversity, not faculty research or Federal dollars, but only the courses students have to take in core subjects. ACTA has reviewed the requirements of 1,098 schools and scored each one on the standard A to F scale.

The degree to which higher education in America has abandoned the mission of liberal education may be measured by the number of schools that made ACTA’s A List. Today, fully 43 percent of all grades given in college are A grades, a bizarre leap from the 15 percent rate in 1960. But ACTA gave only 22 schools its highest score, or really only 21 if we combine St. John’s Annapolis with St. John’s Santa Fe. That makes for a rate of less than 2 percent.

How are we to square this meager commitment to general education with the findings of Academically Adrift, the opinions employers have of the knowledge and skills of recent graduates, and the rising cost of tuition?

There is something else worth noticing in the A List, apart from its microscopic size. We have 21 schools. Three of them are military: West Point, Air Force Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy. Interestingly, the most represented state is Georgia, with Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Kennesaw State, Georgia Southern, and University of Georgia. Most noteworthy of all is that ten schools, nearly half of the list, are religious colleges:

Bluefield College

Clark Atlanta University

Colorado Christian University

Gardner-Webb University

Pepperdine University

Regent University

Southwest Baptist University

Thomas Aquinas College

Thomas More College of Liberal Arts

University of Dallas

My secular colleagues at research universities might be surprised by this commitment to breadth at religious institutions. In the eyes of many, higher education means thinking your way out of parochial perspectives—and religion IS parochial. When Thomas Aquinas on its home page casts the goal of “A Liberating Education” as preparing youths “to live well the life of the free citizen and of the Christian,” it can only strike secularists as a narrowing process, not a broadening one. Bluefield designs the curriculum as the creation of a “Christian academic community,” a term the irreverent professors regard as oxymoronic. Academia and Christianity don’t go together. Does Southwest Baptist have a vibrant queer theory collective?

But here we have evidence of the opposite, religious schools demanding more history, languages, and science than do their worldly competitors. The number of religious institutions on the list suggests another conclusion: that religious understanding is an opening, not a closure—indeed, that the secular departure from religious aims in the curriculum counts as a constraint, not a freedom.

Emptying Content from College Courses

These comments were delivered at the 2015 Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation Symposium on “The Future of Higher Education” June 3 in Washington D.C. The event was co-sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and National Affairs. The full transcript of the symposium is here.

Some conservative critics say that the main problem in American higher education today is that tenured faculty don’t teach enough. It would be better if their lazy self-indulgence could be controlled by more accountable cost-cutting administrators.

Tenure from this view is a kind of union and faculty governance akin to collective bargaining. But the union-taming critics don’t understand that our administrators have already been achieving what the critics want. The truth is that the number of tenured and tenure-track faculties is rapidly diminishing as a percentage of our instructional work force. People with tenure and on tenure track now are still fairly unoppressed and, I admit, an often fairly clueless minority.

Buying Off Tenured Faculty

There are doubtless good reasons why in some places tenured and tenure-track faculty should teach more. It would be better if more students had their personal touch. But given how cheap adjunct faculty are — they work for less than subsistence — it is a big mistake to believe that tenured faculty taking on an additional class or two would produce a significant savings.

It’s often even the case that our administrators would rather they not teach more. At some places, at least, the situation seems to be that administrators are buying off tenured faculty with low teaching loads and various research perks. That incentivizes them to become compliant with the transfer of instruction to adjuncts and other temporary faculty. It also helps them accept the emptying out of the content of general education, those courses required of all students.  Requirements focused on the content and methods of the academic disciplines such as history, literature, and philosophy are being replaced by those based on abstract and empty or content-free competencies such as critical thinking and effective communication.

Make Way for Competencies

Unfortunately, it is often not so hard to convince career specialists to surrender their concern for merely general education or at least to convince them that the imperatives of the marketplace and the increasingly intrusive accreditation process demand that the value of their disciplinary contributions be reconfigured in terms of competencies.

That way they are led to believe they will be able to hang on to their curricular turf. The study of history or philosophy or whatever can be justified after all as deploying the skills and competencies of critical thinking, effective communication or whatever.

One problem, though: the faculty members end up seeing or experiencing is that those skills or competencies can be acquired more easily other ways, ways that are aren’t saddled with all that irksome historical or philosophical content. And when the disciplines of liberal education are displaced by competencies, institutions tend to surrender the content-based distinctiveness that formed most of their educational mission.

So the biggest outrage in higher education right now is not this or that report of students or administrators whining about micro-aggressions or being insufficiently trigger-warned. Notre Dame might be about to surrender the requirement of courses in philosophy and theology for all students in favor of competency-based goals.  If you want to worry about an outrage, worry about that.

Keeping the Classy Brand

As institutions surrender their liberal arts substance while sometimes retaining their classy liberal arts brand, they become identical in terms of their educational goals. Lists of competencies always seem to me kind of vague and random but somehow they turn out to be the same everywhere.

So what the idea of a competency denies is that the dignity of thinking and communication must have something to do with what is being thought and what is being communicated. The how of thinking about who or what a man or woman is way different from figuring out how to rotate your tires or even maximize your productivity. Communicating information is very different from winning friends and influencing people or persuasion or manipulation and is way, way different from communicating the truth through irony or humor or verse such as through the poetry or parables of Revelation or the dialogues of Plato.

Like Panera Bread or Amazon

So as the low but seemingly solid goal of competency becomes about the same everywhere the delivery of education can become less personal or quirky or unreliable or brilliant and standardized according to the quantitatively validated best practices. Courses can become more scripted and then delivery can be increasingly open to the use of the computer screen. So the intellectual labor of college administrators— the number of whom is bloated and the perks of whom are coming to resemble those of corporate CEOs — is directed in much the same way as it is in other sectors of the economy.

So what is going on in colleges and universities is not so different from what is going on at Panera Bread or the Amazon warehouse.

The Amenities Arms Race

As colleges become identical in their competency-based curricula, the question that continues to obsess a college president is how to make his or her institution distinctively attractive in the intensely competitive marketplace for the increasingly scarce resource of the student. So there is increased sensitivity to the student as consumer.

One result is the amenities arms race. Few institutions dare opt out. So there is a proliferation of hotel-style dorms, health club gyms, gourmet food in the cafeteria, more and more non-revenue generating Division III athletic teams and student affairs staff that function like concierges saving students from that dread disease of boredom.

It goes without saying faculty have nothing to do with these innovations at all. The excellent scholar Glenn Reynolds is so disgusted by such developments that his modest proposal is for campuses to be honest and market themselves as luxury cruises.

That means spend and spend more on amenities. And cut and cut more the cost of actual education by reducing the ranks of the career faculty and replacing them with various forms of online instruction and MOOC. No college or university is going quite that far but some are pretty far down the road. And even the small colleges that talk up the presence of real faculty because they can’t get rid of them have begun to describe them as agents and advocates for students. In a way, just another amenity offered to the discerning consumer.

And add to the amenities arms race all the increasingly intrusive and usually stupidly counterproductive compliance requirements of the federal government and accreditation agencies and all those administrative politically correct initiatives that have little to nothing to do with real education and it is easy to see where most of the so-called bubble in college cost is coming from.

It is not faculty compensation or the cost of instruction that is going up much more rapidly than the rate of inflation when my salary is not going up even at the rate of inflation; the cost of instruction is often going down and in ways that is making it worse. Now there are ways to cut the cost of instruction in higher education in general that would cause the quality actually to get better but that would require a renewed focus on the real point of higher education.

Institutionalizing PC

Well, you might say putting the focus on competencies at least has the advantage of banishing at least some politically correct blathering from the classroom. Exactly the opposite is true. It institutionalizes political correctness. Some competencies are always attitudinal about appreciation of diversity and all that so students learn that sensitivity is displayed not only by having correct opinions but having the right kind of enthusiasm, or as they say, “engagement” about them.

In the discipline of philosophy, the question of what justice is allows a genuine diversity of thoughtful and plausible answers. In the era of the competency, the question of justice has been answered and all that is left to do is to be engaged in the right way in promulgating the final solution. So the world of the competency mixes techno vocationalism with dogmatic social liberalism.

Don’t forget that political correctness has morphed from being a radical challenge by socialists as such to American capitalism promulgated by tenured radicals to a kind of cloying sensitivity to the consumer demand that every nook and cranny of a student’s life on campus in thought and deed be a safe and comfortable space. The effect, it often seems, is to make the campus a virtual reality above all, as some say. It is too much like the bubble. The virtual reality is that young people spend too much time losing themselves in in front of a screen.

A Noble Goal

So those conservative reformers who really mean it when they say that they want the classrooms of our career liberal arts professors to be filled with as many students as possible have a noble goal. I’ve explained why that goal doesn’t really have much to do with saving money necessarily. But if their reform intention is seriously personal, or as we say these days, “reform conservatism,” then they should oppose every effort of our administrators to displace respected professors with proletarianized adjuncts as well as to reduce as far as possible the place of the competency and the screen in figuring out what kind of general education, what kind of content-driven literacy is at the core of generally higher education.

Respected professors, it turns out, are a part of the indispensable content of higher education.  For now, we dissident professors are all about resisting standardization and surveillance of all kinds if it comes from the government. We resist it when it comes from the Obama administration and from the Republican Senate. And we, of course, resist all the intrusiveness and stupidity of accreditation associations. We want to protect the genuine moral and intellectual diversity that is the saving grace of American education.

The Accreditation Problem

One great thing about our country is that there are islands of liberal education, sometimes in unexpected places. Not only that, anyone in our country who wants a genuinely higher education can find one, and here is something we don’t emphasize at all, often at a surprisingly affordable price. So we dissident professors applaud those institutions aiming to wean themselves from government funding. And I hope that weaning is a prelude to dispensing with what is the worse and useless process of accreditation.

Because it is impossible to dispense with branding altogether in our world here is my idea. Let’s replace the idea with competency with the idea of literacy, and we want to do so with the real job market in mind. It turns out that the main complaint of employers today is not that college graduates lack this or that fairly minimalist techno competency that could after all be readily learned on the job. Their real complaint is that our students, our graduates don’t have the level of literacy, the good habits, the sense of personal responsibility and the fine manners that we used to count on most college graduates and, to tell the truth, most high-school graduates having.

The main problem with focusing on competency in higher education is that it allows our colleges and universities to be content with producing graduates who are functionally illiterate.

Sure, they can read for information and entertainment and they are quite adept at texting with their friends and playing games on screen. But their reading is too literal or non-ironic, and they can’t enjoy the way authors deploy words to play with ideas and take the light and the wonderfully imperfect and endlessly revealing ways words correspond to the way men and women really are. So our graduates can’t read attentively and they can’t think well as beings born to know, love, and die.

A Conservative Path to Higher Ed Reform

This is an edited transcript of comments delivered by Mr. Kelly at the 2015 Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation Symposium on “The Future of Higher Education” June 3 in Washington D.C.The event was co-sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and National Affairs. You can read the full transcript of the symposium here.

Three trends are complicating reform of higher education.

First, tuition has been trouncing family incomes and has grown faster than just about every other good or service in the economy as well.

Second, the wages recent college graduates earn have been flat or declining for quite a while. This is important because it means that people are paying more for a degree that in absolute terms is actually not worth as much as it used to be. It is worse for people who have some college and no degree. They earn even less. They look a lot like high school graduates these days.

The problem is we have a lot of dropouts, as anybody who has looked at graduation rates can attest. So if you started at a two-year public, just 40% of students finish with some kind of credential — associate’s degree, bachelor’s degree, certificate – within six years. This is for the 2008 cohort, the most recent data available. It is from the National Student Clearinghouse.

It is not much better at four-year publics. It is higher, but we still have a little less than 40% of people who are not finishing or credentialed within six years and again, taking on debt.

You add up trend one and trend two and you have a lot of struggling borrowers. These are numbers from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau in 2013. They looked at who was actively repaying their loans when payment was due. And essentially, what happens is people who are in school or in the grace period don’t have to repay. But if we include them all on the denominator then actually the rate of default or forbearance looks better than it actually is. But if you look — I mean, 40% of people were not actively repaying down their loans in this latest cohort.

We have trend one, we have trend two, and we usually stop there. And we start asking, is college worth it? And then based on the cost and returns many people have concluded no, it is no longer worth it. It is too expensive and you don’t get much for it.

But this is where the third trend comes in–that high-school graduates have had it even worse than college graduates have. Their job prospects have dimmed considerably since the 1970s, in large part due to hollowing out of middle-skill jobs and manufacturing.

The wage premium attached to college is down, but the wage premium between earnings of a college graduate and the earnings of a high-school graduate have actually increased over time. The same is true for associate’s degrees.

This sets up what I call the college conundrum: that some education after high school — associate’s degrees, certificates, technical training, some kind of education post-high school — has become more important to economic mobility, but it is also more expensive than ever before, and it is also riskier than before because it is both more expensive, and completion rates have actually declined over time.

This creates what I call the Enterprise Rent-A-Car problem. If you’ve watched college sports on TV, you’ve seen the commercials. Enterprise prides itself on hiring college graduates. And during college games, they profile former athletes who work and run their rental-car counters. So some of us see that, and I myself say, gosh, four years of college to run a rental car counter? College isn’t worth it any more, is it?

But for some parents, particularly in middle-income and working-class families, it is a much more terrifying proposition: my kids can’t even work at Enterprise Rent-A-Car if they don’t go to college.

And so harping on the fact that too many kids are going to college, I think, is tone-deaf. Tone-deaf to the anxieties of the middle class. And this is why it is a defining middle-class issue. People feel trapped. They can’t afford to go to college and they can’t afford not to; the cost of both have increased.

How did we get here? I’ll march through four problems quickly. The first is that we have a third-party-payer system and easy credit.

So federal aid, student aid programs started out with a noble purpose. There were poor people who could benefit from higher education but couldn’t get access to it because they faced financial barriers. It was targeted, it was need based.

This has now turned into a large entitlement for anybody with a high school diploma and, in fact, for parents of anybody who attends college. In the 1970’s we made upper- and middle-class and then eventually upper-income families eligible for federal loans. They used to be need-based then we sort of opened the floodgates in the late 70s. That is why you see that increase in tuition among private colleges in the early 80s.

In the 1980s, we opened up the loan program to parents. In the 1990s, we made that parent-loan program; we took away the annual limits on how much you could borrow. Now you can get unlimited borrowing up to the cost of attendance. As long as you have a kid in college, you can borrow money to defray the costs.

In the 1990s, we created a host of tax benefits that disproportionately benefit upper-income families. And then in the 2000s we created a federal graduate student-loan program that allows, again, graduate students to borrow up to the cost of attendance unlimited amounts. If you continue to enroll in graduate school, you can borrow as much as you want.

As somebody who took eight years to finish my Ph.D., I know that the incentive is not there to really finish your studies as quickly if you have access to these credit programs.

I think it is really important, though, to distinguish here for the purposes of thinking about tuition inflation and the perverse incentives between programs here. So I think it is important to focus in particular on the loan program. And within the loan programs on the parent-plus and grad-plus programs which have unlimited borrowing up to the cost of attendance.

Stafford loans for dependent students: you can only borrow up to $31,000 over the course of your career, which is a substantial sum of money.

So we spent a lot, particularly over the past decade or so. The Obama administration has both increased the size of the Pell Grant program, spent a lot more on it, and increased the size of federal tax benefits. And people are borrowing a lot more.

A lot of this has to do with the bump in enrollment. More people are going to college. But we are also spending more per person in federal aid.

Here is what we have to show for it over that decade: the net price of attendance for middle-income families has gone up considerably. This is the net price as a percentage of your income. So if you are a middle-income family with a son or daughter attending a private four-year college, you’re paying nearly 40% of your income after taking account of grants and scholarships; public doesn’t look much better.

What is the theory of action here? As far as I can tell, it is subsidize, watch tuition rise and subsidize some more. It’s like trying to bail out a boat with a Dixie cup. So pouring money into a system with misaligned incentives is not going to change the incentives.

Problem number two: we have inadequate quality assurance. There is almost no underwriting on federal loans. You get the same terms whether you are going to Harvard, Joe’s Barber College, or Jay’s Technical School. So lots of federal money flows to bad colleges.

This is from a study that I did where I looked at where student-loan dollars for undergrads went according to the school’s graduation rate. So 37% of our loan disbursements go to places that have graduation rates under 40%.

The regulatory triad, which is the three-pronged approach to regulating higher-ed — that is the federal government, accreditation agencies, and state governments –, is an ineffective gatekeeper when it comes to eligibility for federal aid. It also has a bunch of other problems.

The main rule that the federal government has to hold schools accountable is called the Cohort Default Rate. It says that if more than 40% of your students default on their loans within three years after they stop attending, whether they graduate or not, then you are kicked out of the program.

I said this to an audience of finance people in New York and they like could not contain their laughter. A 40% default rate on a financial product is unheard of. But as long as you are below the threshold and as long as people don’t default within that three-year window you are held harmless. So just eight institutions were subject to sanction in 2011. We don’t know whether they were actually sanctioned. It is really hard to find any kind of information on that.

Accreditation plays a role here—this is essentially a process of peer review. It is built on a conflict of interest. Faculty from the neighboring college down the street come and review your programs and say hey, you look a lot like us and this looks great, you know, you are approved. Terrific. So no surprise, the GAO did a study of this, they found that only eight percent of schools were sanctioned and just one percent lost their accreditation.

We know there are a lot of bad colleges. We know that there are more than one percent. Bad colleges maintain access to federal aid.

Problem number three, we have imperfect consumer information. In the Atlantic, a friend and colleague of mine said, wouldn’t it be great if we had a nutrition-facts approach to college? It would just warn you, if you are going to take on a lot of debt, you are not going to earn anything, and you are not going to graduate, just be careful.

So limited ability to judge cost and quality blunts market discipline. People can’t effectively vote with their feet. Colleges can promise you all sort of things. You have no way to validate whether their promises are accurate and you continue to invest in bad programs.

Problem four–a big one–is that the existing system creates barriers to entry, not allowing competitors in to offer a better product at a lower price.

So right now, thanks to advances in technology, colleges are moving from a logic of scarcity to one of abundance. In the past it made sense to bundle things together, because smart people were scarce and books were scarce and talented students were scarce, so we brought them all together in one place on one campus. And we rationed access to that; we couldn’t have everybody coming in.

But thanks to advances in technology, Proctor U will allow you to take an exam from your own house. It will monitor whether you are cheating or not. It will make sure you are not sort of looking up the answers on the internet. Mozilla Open Badges, anybody can go on there and create an open badge with assessments attached to it that says you have completed this task and here are the skills they proved in completing it; EdX and Udacity, two of the massive open online course providers; and then General Assembly, which is not online at all, it is an in-person immersive set of courses on web development and different kinds of professions. All these things are operating on the periphery. But guess what, the accreditation system keeps new entrants out, acts as a moat; it just says, nope, sorry, you are not coming in here. You don’t look like a college. You haven’t attracted enough students for us to approve you. You don’t award degrees. If you don’t award degrees you can’t get degrees or certificates, can’t be accredited.

So what happens is accredited schools can get access to federal aid, these guys can’t, so if you are a student and you are choosing between paying out of pocket for something versus paying nothing, getting a free education at the community college down the street, you are often going to choose the free option.

Faced with these problems, what has been the progressive response? It has been more of the same tired answer. Now we’ve moved on to expanding income base for payment programs and loan forgiveness. This is one of my favorites; this is one of those companies that advertises that you pay them and they help you access federal programs that you are entitled to anyway.

But this is what’s happened. So income-base for payments says if you qualify to pay your loan payments to your income, you are going to pay 10% of your income and then after 20 years we are going to forgive your loans. If you go into the public sector, we will forgive your loans after ten years. And public sector by the way includes non-profits like my own and others; so very loose definition of public-sector forgiveness.

The best part is this: guess who is eligible for loan forgiveness and income- based payment–graduate students who have access to unlimited borrowing. So graduate-school tuition goes through the roof. And, as taxpayers, we start paying for all that loan forgiveness.

Loan refinancing, Elizabeth Warren’s proposal, would allow everybody to refinance at lower rates—a massive, inefficient program that would not target the money to the borrowers who need help the most.

There has been a repeated call for increased state spending, also progressive responses to regulate more. The Obama administration spent a long time trying to regulate colleges more heavily with gainful employment first of all for the for-profit colleges and college ratings.

And now people hear about the free-college proposal and they say oh, that is free college and what does that have to do with regulation? Well if you read it carefully and you read the ideas carefully you see this is a move away from a market where people can take their voucher to any provider they want, public, private, for-profit and a move to direct federal control, direct federal funding of institutions. Conservative reformers need to resist this wholeheartedly.

So what can we do? So four solutions I’ll zip through them quickly.

We need to give colleges a great stake in student success. We do this by giving colleges skin in the game.

Colleges essentially originate loans. You can’t get a student loan unless you are affiliated with a college and you enroll there, but they bear none of the risk if you fail. Only if you get near that threshold do you bear any of that risk.

This proposal would put colleges on the hook for a share of the loans their students aren’t repaying. They’d have to think twice about enrolling people they know that are not going to be successful. They have to think about offering a lot of programs that are not going to lead to good jobs. It sets a basic standard, but colleges have the flexibility to make it. It is not a top-down regulatory approach that says you have to do the following things to improve. It says we are going to hold you to this standard and you are going to have to get there.

We need power consumers with better data on costs, outcome and value. Those are public goods in my opinion. They help the market work. They help serve taxpayer interests and family interests. So in my opinion the feds are sui generis in their ability to collect these data. States could try, but in terms of return on investment and how do people fare in the labor market. States can collect some of it. And some of them are doing it. But they can’t follow people across state lines. So it’s an inefficient approach.

And you can prevent misuse by legislating prohibitions. And I think the key here is to collect these data, open it up to a set of third parties that can make lots of customized rankings and ratings, actually measure what colleges do, not just the selectivity of their admissions process. That is how we rank colleges now. We say, oh, how good were the undergraduates that you brought in? How good are your inputs?

Three, we need to lower barriers to entry. We have an opportunity to redefine what education looks like, who can offer it. We’ve done this a lot in the past. We created land-grant colleges, community colleges, research universities. We’ve been through rounds of reinvention and the problem right now is we are just showing a tremendous lack of imagination as a policymaking community.

My idea is to create a parallel path. Think about the charter school movement. Charter school policy allows new entrants into the markets to offer the same product. The horse trade would apply there too; organizations that want access to this new pathway would get more flexibility about how they offer education in return for transparency and accountability.

And then last, we need to create space for private financing. The idea that we’ve proposed before is what is called an income-share agreement where investors would front the money for education in return for a fixed percentage of somebody’s future income over a fixed period of time.

What does that do? Well, it aligns the incentives of the lenders or the funders with the incentive of the students. The funders only reap a return if the students are successful. So the funders are going to help people navigate toward programs that are likely to lead to a positive return on investment and so on.

But critically, we need to resolve important regulatory and legal questions around the enforceability of these contracts and where would it be, which institution would regulate at the federal level so there is a federal role here for policymakers. So those are four big ideas. I look forward to discussing them.


Andrew Kelly is a resident scholar in education policy studies and the director of the Center on Higher Education Reform at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI).