8 big ideas for reforming college in the U.S.

This October, the Social Mobility Memos blog at Brookings tackled a topic that is top of mind for many American families and politicians alike: paying for college. In their  Big Ideas for Reforming College seriesBrookings experts and guest writers proposed ideas that could lead to a more cost-effective college education system that promotes social mobility. Here’s what they came up with:

1.       Pay for everyone to go to college

How can we improve access to college for everyone? Make it free, says Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Goldrick-Rab praises the “progressive effects” of a free, inclusive system of public higher education that would help families obtain economic security, stating that “tearing down the price and bureaucratic barriers will matter most to the poorest people, who have made very little progress accessing college under the current system.”


2.       Give Pell Grants to students who are ready to succeed

Senior Fellow Isabel Sawhill says that much of the federal money that is currently being allocated to higher education isn’t being used effectively. Her solution: Make federal financial assistance via Pell Grants more conditional on student performance. Counselling high school students on what is required to do well in college and assuring financial support only to those who achieve a basic level of proficiency would both encourage more learning in high school and improve outcomes once students are enrolled in college, says Sawhill.


3.       Provide college students with mentors in addition to money

Nonresident Fellow Brad Hershbein affirms that while free college could certainly help many students, the barriers to college completion extend far beyond a lack of money to pay for it. In order to ensure that students (especially those from low-income backgrounds or who are first-generation college attendees) are actually completing their degrees, he says we must invest in mentorship programs and other services designed to promote college success in addition to providing more traditional financial aid.


4.       Make going to college be more like hiring a general contractor

To make college more affordable, we need to completely rethink what college means, says Senior Fellow Stuart Butler. He suggests replacing the traditional four year, in-person brick-and-mortar college experience with a “general contractor” model, through which the contractor (college) “assembles a collection of courses from different places and delivers them in different ways.” This model, says Butler, would enable students to pursue degrees better tailored to their interests and needs—as well as to their home and employment situations.

5.       Lower the risk of investing in college with Income Share Agreements

The issue with college today, says Fellow Beth Akers, isn’t rising tuition prices or the debt incurred by those who pay them—it’s the risk associated with investing in a college degree. Though she stresses that “degrees still pay large dividends for the typical student,” many end up sinking money into programs that provide little or no return on their investments.

Her solution: help students insure themselves against bad financial outcomes by utilizing private sector Income Share Agreements (ISAs) that will allow them to fund their studies by selling “shares” in their future earnings. Under the ISA framework, if a student’s degree proves to be worthless, he or she will pay back little or nothing; but if it ends up being valuable, he or she will end up owing their lender a lot. Either way, says Akers, “the payments are, by construction, affordable.”


6.       Make college affordable through income-based loan repayments

Despite a recent glut in coverage of the student debt crisis, University of Michigan Professor Susan Dynarski posits that the real problem isn’t the debt students leave college with, but how they’re expected to repay it. Payments are inflexible and due soon after graduation, when many student have low or variable incomes. This, says Dynarski, can lead to financial distress for many young borrowers.

The solution, she says, is a federally-administered income-contingent loan system through which students could pay back their loans based on their actual earnings. According to Dynarski, this system would ease financial struggles for many, and “would provide insurance against poor outcomes in the labor market, to which low-income, first-generation students are particularly vulnerable.”


7.       Move from a debt-based to an asset-based approach to financial aid

“The real college debt crisis,” argue University of Kansas’ Melinda Lewis and William Elliott III, “is in how student borrowing may be compromising higher education’s potency as an engine of equal opportunity,” and that it’s time to shift the discussion away from how to manage college debt to how to start saving early for college.

They suggest moving from a debt-based to an asset-based approach to financial aid through the use of Children’s Savings Accounts (CSAs). CSAs, say the authors, start bridging the college affordability gaps early in a child’s life, and can even help shape students’ future levels of engagement and achievement.


8.       Use human resource bonds to fund college

Though former Johns Hopkins University Senior Researcher Arnold Packer agrees that a college education is important for both individual students and society generally, he stresses that “prior life stages—pregnancy, infancy, preschool, school years (K-8), adolescence—are critical to [students] being ready for college at 18.”

In order to ensure that students are part of a “learning society” long before they enter college, he suggests setting up 20-year term human resource bonds that ultimately end with funding college tuition. This initiative would be similar to successful “Pay for Success” programs that have “yielded attractive returns … by reducing prison recidivism, foster care, health costs, and other government expenditures.”


Read the full Big Ideas for Reforming College series here.

Ariana Motazed contributed to this post.