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Campus Protests Should Remind Us All of College's Value

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The passionate campus protests in California and elsewhere last week were a reminder for all of us who work in education that schools -- the people who work in them and the students who learn in them -- are a treasured investment. Decrying college fee increases and widespread budget cuts, the demonstrators especially highlighted the hardships that many families face in affording college, especially in this still-recovering economy.

Last week's demonstrations were also a reminder of why it is essential that Congress pass the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act (SAFRA), a landmark piece of legislation that addresses college affordability concerns through direct financial aid that cuts out middlemen bankers. Awaiting action by the Senate, SAFRA would expand aid for America's college-going students by billions of dollars, and would restructure our student aid programs to make them simpler, more efficient, and more reliable. The plan pays for these improvements by ending taxpayer subsidies to banks and moving our money to students. We cannot let this opportunity slip away.

But expanding financial aid is only half of the affordability equation; state leaders and college administrators must work to slow the growth of college costs. I am concerned that tuition and fees at public colleges and universities are set to spike even further as states continue to trim their budgets.

State governments generate less revenue in a recession. As state leaders struggle to make up for lost revenue, legislatures tend to cut funding for higher education. Colleges, in turn, answer these funding cuts with tuition hikes. Ultimately, states are resolving short-term crises by undermining long-term investment in future generations.

States should not balance their budgets on the backs of students. Instead, colleges should scrutinize their spending for ways they can trim costs. For example, this year the University of North Carolina hired a management consulting team that identified $150 million in annual savings. Every school should be looking for ways to save.

University presidents and governing boards must pay more attention to efficiency, productivity, and accountability as reform tools. With productivity improvements and enhanced accountability, many post-secondary institutions can boost quality and access - all while containing costs.

The alternative - pricing millions of students out the American Dream - is unacceptable to me, both as Secretary of Education and as a parent.

Last week, a few days before the demonstrations on campuses, I participated in an online conversation that the White House organized to talk about the President's higher education agenda. During the webchat one participant's statement really disheartened me. A woman named Melissa questioned why she should encourage her children to go to college if they're almost certain to graduate with a huge burden of debt. "It's a noose around your neck that you never get out of," she wrote.

With the ever-escalating cost of college, I can understand Melissa's thinking. But a college degree is still absolutely worth it. According to U.S. Census data, adults with a bachelor's degree earn 70 percent more than adults with just a high school diploma. In the 21st century global job market, it's the lack of at least some college-level education that will be the lifelong noose around your neck, not student loans.

I say that because, through Income Based Repayment, monthly repayments for federal student loans are now capped within an affordable range for people who live within their means. For those who go into public service, such as teachers, their federal student loans can be forgiven after 10 years on the job.

The cost of college should never discourage anyone from going after a valuable degree. And helping America's students pursue their education should always trump bankers in pursuit of profits.