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Higher education in America continues to be critical for both individual success and the social and economic health of our country. A college diploma is no longer a luxury. By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the U.S. will require a postsecondary education. While college attendance has grown over the past two decades, state appropriations and federal aid have failed to keep pace with the rising cost of college, shifting more costs to students. As a result, students take on loans they cannot afford and graduate with thousands of dollars of debt. This does not include the hundreds of thousands of debt incurred for graduate or professional degrees.
Debt is a real burden. Heavy student loan debt carries negative consequences for borrowers, who must make monthly payments with their hard-earned dollars rather than save up and get ahead. High debt can affect where graduates live, the kind of careers they pursue, when they start a family or purchase a home, and whether they can save for retirement. The combination of high student debt and low earnings can lead to default, ruined credit and wage garnishment. Such distress runs counter to the goal of higher education, and the cumulate effect is corrosive.
There are ways to make college more affordable, now. One way to boost college affordability is to make certain that students complete their degrees and do it quickly. Today, the country spends an enormous amount of money educating students who ultimately drop out before graduation. Shockingly, only 60 percent of American undergraduates seeking a bachelors degree complete their studies within six years (not even four). But dropouts aren’t the only problem. On average, students who do complete their degrees are paying for more courses and credits than required for their diploma or certificate. That’s a waste of resources for both students and the governments that subsidize their tuition.
Real world learning happens outside the classroom, and it should be credited. Plus it can also reduce the amount of time it takes complete a degree. Veterans could be the biggest immediate beneficiaries of this common sense approach. Today there are medics and mechanics who acquired skills on the battlefield, but can’t land a job back home as a paramedic or mechanic because they don’t have a diploma or certificate that proves what they know. Colleges need to recognize the academic value of such prior work.
College-level work can and does start early. More and more students are getting a jump on their first year of college by taking Advanced Placement (AP) in high school. Taking college courses early can help students prepare for the rigors of college—and save more than a semester’s worth of tuition. But not all schools offer AP courses. And for some high school students, taking classes at a local college isn’t an option. Today, online courses can make it possible for students to take AP classes after school—or even during the summer. Low-income students should check for AP test fee waivers. Careful planning and a willingness to take on an extra challenge can save students time and money.
Addressing the inflated costs of text is a solution that can be implemented today. The typical college student spends $1,200 on textbooks each year. At community colleges, materials make up 39 percent of total cost. Textbook rentals have been around for more than a decade, but with big names like Amazon and Barnes & Noble entering the mix, costs are falling even faster.
The nation cannot close this gap in educational opportunity without addressing the public policies that influence affordability. All Americans, but particularly the young, are desperate for affordable and effective post-secondary options that can help them gain the skills they’ll need to achieve economic independence.
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