After Student Loans

Fawn Johnson

Can we talk about broader issues in higher education now? The Senate is poised to vote this week on a bill to convert the current system of fixed student loan interest rates into a market-based system that permanently resolves the "cliff" that would loom with a temporary extension of the current rate. The House passed similar legislation earlier this year. Once the minor differences between the Senate and House are resolved, the bill will become law and the drama will be over. For the foreseeable future, interest rates will actually be lower for a large chunk of the undergraduate population—the ones who are taking out both subsidized and unsubsidized loans.

I have always thought that the furor over student loan interest rates was overblown compared to the bigger problems in higher education—the gap between what college students are taught and what their future employers want, the seemingly endless rise in tuition rates, the limited options for students who want technical and vocational certification. But the public anger provoked by the mere suggestion that student loan interest rates would go up illustrates the raw power of student voices and a nation-wide anxiety about access to higher education. Everyone knows that college is the ticket to personal financial stability, but getting there and getting through is a treacherous journey.

The University of California's bold decision to appoint of outgoing Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano as its new president is one example of how higher education is in transition. Educators are trying to find new ways to connect to the "real world" outside of their ivory tower. "Let me acknowledge that I am not a traditional candidate for this position," Napolitano said last week. "I have not spent a career in academia." That's the reason she's there.

Earlier this year, the Education Department said Southern New Hampshire University could receive federal financial aid for students enrolled in a new, self-paced online program. It is the first higher education program to be granted eligibility for federal funding that does not measure student learning in credit hours or clock hours. Instead, student learning is measured through tests, projects, performances, or papers. It's an experiment in a new way to deliver a college degree without classroom seat time.

Daring steps like these are welcome and risky. These kinds of experiments, not incremental changes in student loan rates, will be the game changers that will put higher education closer to the massive increase in enrollment and graduations envisioned by President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan.

What are other examples of bold experiments in higher education? What can we learn from them? What stands in the way of educators taking such steps? Why did the student loan interest rate debate spark so much interest? What other pieces of higher education could inspire the same kind of enthusiasm? What is the next step after student loans?