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Paying for College: The Music Has Stopped

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When you see the president of the United States "slow jamming" about student loans with Jimmy Fallon, the presumptive Republican nominee quickly agreeing with the president on the need for Congressional action, and the Speaker of the House assuring the public that the only barrier to Congressional action is "political" -- one can assume that the issue of college affordability is one that resonates with a large sector of the electorate. This concern is not recent -- hearings have been held and calls have been made for colleges and universities to hold the line on costs. But keeping college affordable while making the opportunity for college success available to the millions of Americans who need and want it is an enormous challenge.

Higher education in the U.S. has traditionally relied on two major sources of funds -- government appropriations (mostly state and federal) and student tuition (much of it financed by loans). When one was in short supply, institutions usually looked to the other. Both ratcheted up relentlessly as the cost of college went up faster than health care costs, inflation and family incomes over the past two decades. But now the music has stopped -- neither government nor students have the money to pay for these kinds of continuing cost increases.

Still, demand for a major increase in the number and quality of degrees awarded is growing, as evidenced by the growing wage premium for those with college degrees -- even in the midst of these economic doldrums. So creating a system that can deliver on this demand in the absence of significant new resources is the most immediate and serious challenge.

The business model of higher education no longer meets the nation's burgeoning need for more individuals with credentials of value. Lumina's work with higher education institutions and systems across the U.S. to increase their productivity -- to successfully serve more students with the resources available -- is showing one way forward. The goal is to increase the capacity of the system to serve a lot more people, at the lowest possible cost per degree, while improving access and equity.

But how can that happen? While there are no easy fixes, clearly the time has come for fundamental system redesign. We could start with the national workforce development system. Workers participating in job training programs should be seen for who they are -- students, who are acquiring new skills and knowledge. This learning should be recognized so that it can be applied to further education and degrees, making the dream of college a reality for many more while shortening the time it takes to earn a degree and making college more affordable. This is especially critical for under-served populations and for adults who have been shut out of knowledge economy jobs because of inadequate education levels.

The efforts should not stop there. We must find ways to allow new learning-based degrees and credentials to emerge. Almost all higher education is still delivered and funded based on the time students spend in a seat in a classroom. This obsolete approach stifles innovation and drives up costs, but it is deeply embedded in both federal and state policy as well as institutional practice. Moving beyond it will not be easy, but there are now many organizations working hard to figure out what it will take to do so.

There is a lot that higher education can do to expand opportunity and hold the line on costs, and the calls to action by the president and many others are entirely appropriate. But a full solution to this challenge will require a fundamental rethink of some of the most cherished assumptions about higher education. There really isn't an alternative -- the need for millions more to get the skills and knowledge represented by college degrees is absolutely clear.

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