01/22/2013 06:09 pm ET Updated Mar 24, 2013

A Broader Perspective on Student Woes

Harvard University Economist Edward L. Glaeser recently proposed a radical expansion and restructuring of the Federal Pell Grant Program. His plan would increase the maximum grant by 27 percent, from $5,500 to $7,000, but withhold half the amounts initially awarded and credited to a student's account. Colleges would only be reimbursed after the student graduates and holds a "decent" job for three months. Glaeser believes that this hold-back approach would motivate colleges to work harder to help students graduate well prepared for employment.

Glaeser's writing was stimulated by a front-page story in The New York Times about three bright young women from Galveston, Texas. Four years after entering college, none has a four-year degree and two have "crushing" debts.

Is this story typical, and in such cases is more federal funding, even so incentivized, really possible or practical?

The Pell Grant program, which is vitally important for low-income students, has been expanded dramatically, to $40 billion. Where could an additional $10 billion be found amidst the fiscal chaos in Washington? And wouldn't this incentive lead to compromises in standards for the sake of revenue?

My own view is that the solution to the problem portrayed by The New York Times story lies largely with our high schools and colleges, and with students themselves.

More attention needs to be paid in high school to the requirements for success in both the workplace and higher education. Graduating with a full curriculum of math, science, and English language courses is as important to landing a "decent" job in today's technology-infused workplaces as in gaining college admission. Life and employment skills are as relevant to success in college as technological skills are in the workforce.

It's all about "Integrating College and Career Readiness" (ICCR), the title of a recent task force commissioned by the Massachusetts legislature and led by Gerald Chertavian, Founder and CEO of Year Up. The ICCR report argued, as Chertavian recently summarized, that "knowledge, skills and experiences in the workplace, personal/social development, and academic domains are indeed essential to postsecondary success for all students, regardless of the path they pursue immediately after high school." Armed with such preparation, students will be better prepared to plan and advocate for their own success in a highly competitive world.

Colleges and universities are heavily invested in many types of social and academic programs promoting successful transitions into college and continuing success thereafter. Support programs for low-income and minority students are commonplace, as are opportunities for remediation, accommodations for special needs, and extensive counseling and mental health services. Members of my own faculty are as committed to their students' success as to their own career advancement.

The cost of all this is substantial, and contributes to increases in college tuition. And little of it can work if students are not motivated to succeed, willing to seek necessary help, and equipped with good life skills.

College costs are real, and the return on a student's investment can be quite substantial. At my own institution the average discount on tuition due to financial aid is 40 percent; 96 percent of freshmen continue successfully into their sophomore year; 76 percent graduate after four years, 80 percent after six; placement of graduates into "decent" jobs or quality graduate programs is 90 percent; starting salaries for BS/BA graduates average $60,000; and the student debt load upon graduation averages $27,000. We offer a highly rigorous education rooted in science and engineering, with a strong component of liberal and fine arts. We attract highly motivated, smart students who are passionate about using their knowledge to make a positive impact on the world.

Yet, even with substantial financial aid, such high quality education such as this is beyond the financial capability of many families. One major problem is that the cost is borne largely by families, competing with ordinary living expenses and retirement savings. An alternative approach, proposed by the late Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman, would be a national revolving loan fund to enable students to finance education costs on the basis of lifetime earnings. Repayment at a fixed percentage of future earnings could be collected by the IRS. Those earning more would return more into the fund; those earning less would return less. Such a fund, once initially capitalized, would be self-sustaining via repayments, not a continuing drain on federal funds. Participants would choose institutions based on comparable value and career interests, and would experience affordable, not "crushing," repayment obligations.

Quality higher education remains a great personal value and an important factor in the continuing success of our democracy and the health of our economy. Greater student success is a complex imperative requiring our continuing passionate commitments and creative energies.

Dennis Berkey is president and CEO of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and served on the ICCR Task Force.