Redefining Affordable and Equitable Postsecondary Education in the U.S.

I read with interest last week about Senator Patty Murray’s (D-Wash.) priorities for the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. In particular, Murray is working with her colleagues to address issues of affordability and equity in higher education.

“Students across the country are working hard and holding up their end of the bargain — so we need to write a law that strengthens federal investments in our students, supports and incentivizes states to reinvest in higher education, and ensures students have access to an education of value and graduate with high-quality certificates and degrees that help them succeed in today’s workforce and society,” said Murray.

Among other things, Murray is looking at (1) federal-state partnerships to promote new investments in education, (2) providing loan forgiveness for students “who have been cheated by their schools,” and (3) making college affordable to all students by enhancing federal investments and support systems to historically underrepresented students.

While I applaud Senator Murray’s support for affordable and equitable access to quality postsecondary education, I would suggest that there is one significant component missing from her proposed solutions. I should add that this component is also missing from proposals put forth by other members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

What’s missing in current plans for affordable and equitable higher education is an emphasis on the creation and delivery of education solutions that are actually affordable and equitable.

Yes, it is a great idea to build pathways to high-quality postsecondary education for everyone in the U.S. And yes, it would be incredible is federal and state governments could work together to help all citizens flourish both personally and professionally. And, of course, it is good for the government to provide protection against bad actors in the education marketplace.

However, if we want to ensure that everyone has access to quality postsecondary certificates and degrees, we must begin by designing learning programs that everyone can truly afford. Without incurring debt. Without making unwise or unreasonable sacrifices.

We must design programs that students and families can afford even without federal or state support. Speaking from experience, this means making affordability a centerpiece of both product and business design.  It means being willing to disrupt existing operational structures to make real affordable postsecondary education a reality.

Concerning equitable access, we must programs and pathways that make it easy for people to begin their postsecondary education journey, wherever they are and whatever their socioeconomic or educational situation. This means providing college-credit and certificate training in a distributed fashion, to local communities and high schools across the US. It also means offering broad flexibility, both in terms of schedules and instruction. Equitable education means meeting people where they are at right now and allowing them to get started with as little disruption as possible.

Rob Reynolds, Ph.D.
Executive Director

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