As the Biden administration debated whether to forgive student debt, and by how much, Ron Lieber in the New York Times asked a different question, one that’s just as important:
“What should we do about the schools that left borrowers in a challenging situation to begin with? Without any changes to the higher education system and its institutions, debt will continue spiraling into the trillions of dollars.”
To try to answer this question, he looked through government data to find schools where a significant number of graduates don’t do better than high school graduates after six years despite paying for a college education.
He didn’t have to look far. There’s notable data showing that predatory institutions often leave students worse off than if they’d never gone to college at all. That’s a huge problem. But there are also many responsible colleges that don’t look to economic outcomes as a measure of success — and often that’s legitimate.
Colleges Must Be Open and Transparent To Be Trusted
As he looked through different colleges, Lieber found a music conservatory on his list. Students don’t go there because they want to make a lot of money: they go there because they want to be great musicians. He also spoke with college a where officials told him that they aren’t concerned about getting their significantly disenfranchised students into high earning professions, but rather are focused on giving ordinary opportunities to students who probably wouldn’t have them at all.
It’s not right to judge the worth of a life or career just on the basis of how much someone earns. As Lieber notes:
Indeed, there are students who are by no means undecided about their studies and careers and do enter college with a reasonably clear sense about their modest financial goals. Those at Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., outearn high school graduates 46 percent of the time six years after starting.
“The majority of our students come and leave because they want to be activists, artists, educators or entrepreneurs,” said Edward Wingenbach, Hampshire’s president. “None of those career paths have early income success.”
There are numerous reasons to go to college beyond higher earnings – none of those should be discounted.
Higher education can legitimately serve a number of purposes. But for many students, it is intended to be a key to a better career. If students are enrolling because that’s what they want, then it really matters if an institution can deliver, especially if students are going into significant debt to earn their diploma.
It’s vital colleges be upfront about what they offer, how much it costs, and what kinds of outcomes they have. What makes predatory colleges so pernicious is that they’re typically expensive, opaque about post graduate opportunities, and their degrees (for those who earn them) don’t often lead to better careers.
Potential students can only make the right decisions for themselves if they have the information they need. Transparency matters. Making data available and clear to potential students matters.
A New Kind Of College: Online, Free, And Career Focused
At Calbright, part of being a new kind of college is making sure we are as straightforward and transparent as possible. When we say we’re career focused, we mean that we only offer a limited number of certificate programs which are all designed to prepare people for a new field or a better job as soon as possible.
When we say our programs are currently free, that’s exactly what we mean: there’s no tuition, no fees, and no financial aid forms.
Step after step, clear language and transparency about what we offer makes it easy for potential students to know if we’re a good match for their ambitions and dreams, as well as their financial situation.
No single college can be for every student, but colleges can be clear about what they offer, why, and how much it costs. Just to start.