Department of College Education

The Future of Higher Education in America

Duncan giving a speech at UMUBC

“The degree students truly can’t afford is the one they don’t complete, or that employers don’t value.”

More students are graduating college than ever before. But for too many students, the nation’s higher education system isn’t delivering what they need and deserve. Earlier today, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan outlined a new vision for higher education in America at a speech at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Duncan called for a higher ed system that will not only make college affordable, but also focuses on whether students are actually graduating in a timely way with a meaningful degree that sets them up for future success.

Nearly half of today’s students who begin college do not graduate within six years. The consequences of taking on debt but never receiving a degree can be severe. Students who borrow for college but never graduate are three times more likely to default. In his speech today, Duncan said:

“There is a path to a higher education system that serves many more students much better. And continuing to make college more accessible and affordable – including more tuition-free and debt-free degrees – is part of that. But it’s only part.

“If we confine the discussion to cost and debt, we will have failed. Because we will have only found better ways to pay for a system that fails far too many of our students.”

Doing More to Focus on Outcomes

Over the past six and a half years, the Obama Administration has taken strong action to counteract the rising cost of higher education, expanding Pell Grants, and making student debt more manageable by expanding loan repayment options that cap payments based on income. The administration has also pursued executive actions and put forward policy proposals to address flaws in the higher education system and create incentives for all actors to focus on student outcomes.

“We must shift incentives at every level to focus on student success, not just access, ” Duncan said during his speech.

When students win, everyone wins. But when they lose, every part of the system should share responsibility.

Today, only students, families and taxpayers lose when students don’t succeed– that makes no sense. Institutions must be held accountable when they get paid by students and taxpayers but fail to deliver a quality education. So should states and accreditors who are responsible to oversee them under the law.

By the same token, schools should be rewarded for doing the right thing – like taking on students who are struggling and helping them succeed.

Despite the Administration’s historic actions and the leadership of innovative institutions, much work remains to meet our goal of once again having the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

The Administration will continue to act within its power to control college costs and help students graduate on time with a meaningful degree. We need Congress, states, colleges and universities, and accreditors to join in that effort.


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