Win McNamee/Getty Images

This is the third of a three-part series. You can read part one here and part two here.

College is becoming increasingly unaffordable. The number of people taking out student loans is skyrocketing. And the cold truth is that some degrees aren’t worth the money.

So where does a nation that once led the world in college graduates go from here?

Up, hopefully.

Putting aside the debate about whether college is for everyone, how should we make college more affordable and more worthwhile for those who choose that path?

Advertisement

That issue was a key topic at a September Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Senate committee hearing.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA), chairman of the committee said at the hearing that families “across this country question whether this higher education system is really working for them. What has historically been the pathway to the middle class is now being called into question. We all need to take a tough look at reimagining how this system can work better.”

Harkin added that states, college accreditors and the federal government, “as gatekeepers of tax dollars,” have an obligation to make sure investments in higher education make sense.

Advertisement

He advocates some regulation, but thinks it should be smart regulation. That’s not a universally popular opinion, though. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), ranking member of the committee, said regulation can inhibit progress and that people are too focused on the negative.

“Sometimes we are so concerned about the direction of our country that we fail to notice what is going right and what is working. The United States doesn’t just have some of the best colleges and universities in the world. It has almost all of them,” he said at the hearing.

He’d like to see an entirely new Higher Education Act free of tuition price controls, mandates about how to cut college costs and “Washington micromanagement of research priorities.”

Advertisement

The reality is, though, as Sen. Elizabeth Warren pointed out at the hearing, fewer students have access to those schools without having to take out thousands of dollars in loans. People now pay 300 percent of what their parents paid a generation ago, Warren said.

“If students can’t afford to go to college,” she said, “they’re not going to get that high-quality education.”

How do we change that? There are tactics - students who need them take both remedial workshops and college classes simultaneously at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee instead of spending a year on catching up alone, the University System of Maryland is experimenting with massive open online courses - from different pockets of the country that could provide a road map, but it's not clear that they can or should be expanded or required.

Advertisement

First of all, there are legitimate concerns: are online courses for everyone? Probably not. Some people need face-to-face support to succeed in college. And more broadly, colleges don't want to be pigeonholed into adopting a certain type of "innovation." Educators at an October HELP hearing expressed frustration at what they say are regulations, around financial aid dispersal, for instance, that limit their ability to experiment with new approaches to higher education.

Lawmakers across the board do seem to agree on one thing: colleges right now don’t do a good job of innovating.

President Barack Obama would like to change that. He outlined a plan this summer that he said would, in part, spur innovation in higher education.

Advertisement

The basics are this:

1. He’d like to tie how much federal financial aid colleges get to their performance according to a ratings system the administration plans to develop in the next couple of years.

2. He’d like to make higher education more accessible by expanding things like large online classes and giving college credit to people who have learned skills in the workforce or military.

Advertisement

3. He’d like to change the current student loan system and cap student loan repayment plans based on how much graduates earn and offer more student loan guidance to families.

But there are some challenges:

The administration can implement a ratings system without Congressional approval, but they’ll have to drum up support for a federal student loan overhaul.

Advertisement

While specific details of the ratings system have yet to be determined, according to a White House official, the ratings “will compare colleges with similar missions and identify colleges that do the most to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as colleges that are improving their performance.” That will include “all institutions that confer a degree or credential and that receive federal financial aid - including career colleges,” according to the official, who added that the results will be published on the College Scorecard. The results will “take into consideration factors related to access, affordability and outcomes - with particular attention to access and success for disadvantaged students.”

How the factors will interact and the weight that each will carry has not yet been determined.

David A. Bergeron, vice president for Post-Secondary Education Policy with the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, says the president’s college affordability plan should appeal to a wide variety of lawmakers and that the ratings system could have some real-world impact even if it’s not tied to funding.

Advertisement

Bergeron acted until this spring as chief advisor to Education Secretary Arne Duncan on higher-education issues and helped develop the College Scorecard.

It can change consumer behavior the way that people use the U.S. News and World college rankings to make decisions, except this system will focus more on value and less on sheer competitiveness. It is also likely to make schools take action to ensure they perform well because they’re “very sensitive to how their perceived,” he said.

If Bergeron were still making policy, he’d suggest a few additional things, he said.

Advertisement

Instead of giving more Pell Grant money to schools with high graduation rates, he’d think about raising loan limits so that institutions that do a good job of getting people through in four years have higher loan limits. People at those schools, he pointed out, won’t need to borrow as much even if they’re allowed to take out more, because they’ll be graduating on time.

He also thinks telling families during a kid’s senior year what they’re expected to contribute financially is too late, adding that what the administration is actually looking for is which families have been able to save money over time, not what they earned last year.

Does the president’s plan have any hope of generating bipartisan support? It just might, according to Bergeron.

Advertisement

On the college affordability issue, Bergeron said, “There’s a very narrow group of people protective of the status quo.”

So far, some non-profit colleges, which have been criticized for taking lots of federal aid and not graduating people, have voiced opposition. Other than that, resistance has been pretty mild.

Ultimately, the higher education system needs to change if college is to remain affordable. While there are different ideas about how to alter it, it’s encouraging that it’s part of the national dialogue and that people seem generally receptive.

Advertisement

“At the end of the day,” Bergeron said, “I think Congress will do something along the lines of what the administration is proposing.”

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.