The drumbeat of risk sharing with regard to student-debt default has been getting louder. Senator Elizabeth Warren jumped into the debt-free college fray last week with a proposal that included risk sharing and the Chronicle ran a commentary piece from Douglas Webber largely extoling the virtues of the policy. While Webber’s piece makes some important points, like Warren, he fails to take into account factors beyond a college’s control.
In all of the talk of risk sharing and institutional accountability, we have lost sight of the fact that a college education is a partnership between an institution and a student. Students have both a responsibility and a significant degree of control in this venture. A college can offer comprehensive financial and academic advising, but it is the student who makes the decisions that effect how much they borrow, what their major will be, how they engage in their learning experience and how they take advantage of the institutional programs that best prepare them to enter the job market.
Webber focuses on the weaknesses of advising. Forgetting that advisors can only advise. It is the student that decides. Would you find fault with an institution’s advising if a student is given complete information that a particular major leads to lower paying professions but the student chooses that path anyway? Webber also uses a growing number of required credits at community colleges as an example of institutional fault, but what if advising lays out an appropriate academic plan (be it four-year or two) toward graduation and the student deviates, prolonging their education. Should the institution be held responsible for this all-too-common occurrence?
Higher education has a lot of issues to address and the benefit of reform is in how it creates incentive for deeper, more meaningful change. I whole-heartedly agree that higher education needs to address cost. I also believe that the current accountability system for default rates could be strengthened, closing some of the loop holes that allow institutions to avoid dealing more directly with the problem. But what about restricting borrowing to tuition expenses? Again, this is something beyond the control of institutions. Imposing penalties on colleges and universities for things that are not entirely within their control only helps to feed the blame seeking winds of the political season.
Why not penalties related to employment rates? After all, the student debt discussion is closely tied to what has become an expected outcome of a college degree: a guaranteed job after graduation. Higher education began placing an emphasis on career development outcomes in the early 2000s, with many institutions implementing a recommended four-year program. But still, the majority of college students only turn to these services in the final months of their college career, if at all. Residential colleges provide opportunities for civic engagement, service learning, internships and leadership roles—all of which help provide a full experience and improve employability. While many students accept their responsibility to be a full partner in their education, there is still a large number who do not.
I have yet to see anyone touch on the impact of accountability penalties on tuition-driven four-year institutions. Many of these colleges do an outstanding job of providing financial advising and a quality academic experience, providing their graduates with the skills they need—not just for their first job, but for their careers. The penalties that Webber and Warren advocate would have a crushing effect on these institutions and would result in fewer educational opportunities for prospective students who benefit from the value these colleges offer.
The public conversation about higher education accountability is good one, but the economic impact—for students and colleges, their communities and employees—is too great for it to be a conveniently shallow discussion.