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Alfonse D'Amato

Higher ed needs a shake-up


It seems every politician under the sun is scrambling to deal with the out-of-control costs of higher education in the U.S. And with good cause. Over the past three decades, college costs have tripled, while family income has stayed flat. Graduates carry more than a diploma away from college: They haul away crushing college debt.

Student loan borrowers owe an average of $28,650, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. For post-graduate degrees, the debt burden can easily exceed six figures. Nationally, the college debt of nearly 45 million graduates adds up to over $1.5 trillion. Delinquency rates on these loans exceed 11 percent.

The excessive cost of college is bankrupting our young people and their families. Many graduates must postpone starting their own families or buying homes to meet their student loan obligations.

The score of Democratic candidates for president are outbidding one another in an effort to appeal to these hard-pressed voters. Bernie Sanders promises universal free public college. Elizabeth Warren one-ups him with a proposal to forgive nearly all of that $1.5 trillion debt. Both say they’ll pay for this with more taxes on the “rich,” though to collect the kind of revenue they’d need for these expensive schemes, "rich” means anyone earning more than $250,000. In New York, that’s more middle than upper class.

Republicans, too, have offered various debt-forgiveness plans. One would reduce the number of federal loan-repayment programs and repayments and offer some forgiveness after 15 years. Another would more strictly limit student borrowing from the federal government.

But none of these proposals would get to the root of the higher ed cost spiral crisis. College today is obscenely overpriced, with absolutely no containment of costs imposed on students. The average cost of college for the 2017–2018 school year was $20,770 for public schools and $46,950 for nonprofit private schools. For some of the elite colleges, the cost can run as high as $70,000. It costs as much for young people to go to a public college today as it used to cost to go to a private one, and as much to go to a private college as is used to cost to buy that first house!

Colleges with multi-million-dollar presidents, billion-dollar endowments, compliant boards of trustees and complicit, highly paid, often underworked professors all thrive in an ivory-tower dream world where they can wring their hands about all of the nation’s other social and financial ills, except the ones they themselves help create. What if they finally had to live by their own admonitions? Why shouldn’t the federal government insist that college costs be held in check before Washington throws billions of dollars toward their outlandish overspending?

And taking the fight for America’s students and their families a step further, what if the federal government insisted that colleges drag themselves into the 21st century like the rest of the U.S. economy, and fully embrace the information age in which we in the real world live? Just as we no longer traipse to brick-and-mortar stores to buy goods, why can’t American higher education likewise become truly internet-friendly and accessible?

Maybe what America needs is an Amazon for higher education, in competition with traditional colleges, offering robust, internet-based education programs recognizing that today’s kids — savvy information searchers and shoppers — know how to get their information online. And for a truly radical approach, suppose Washington cut off endless grant and loan subsidies to colleges altogether, and instead diverted those hundreds of billions of dollars to establish a universally accessible, low-cost, internet-based alternative to today’s overpriced colleges and universities?

Before the higher ed establishment rushes to the ramparts of its ivory towers to rail against this modern idea, it should take a long-range look at the future of higher learning in America. When the best professors with the best lectures and the best ideas can be beamed beyond the confines of a 200-student auditorium to the world at large, to every corner of the globe, how can that not be good for everyone?

None of this is to say that there’s no place for our colleges and universities in the higher education universe. It just means that the university universe should expand to the full limits of human understanding and knowledge. We know and understand that the internet points to the future of our economic and social connections. Why shouldn’t it lead higher education into the future, too?

Al D’Amato, a former U.S. senator from New York, is the founder of Park Strategies LLC, a public policy and business development firm. Comments about this column? ADAmato@liherald.com.