The Path to Debt Free College: More School Choice

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There’s no shortage of efforts to solve our nation’s $1.3 trillion student debt crisis. Just last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced the Reducing Educational Debt Act , bills aimed at giving student borrowers new debt refinancing options and allocating more federal money to Pell Grants and community colleges…

There's no shortage of efforts to solve our nation's $1.3 trillion student debt crisis. Just last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren announced the Reducing Educational Debt Act, bills aimed at giving student borrowers new debt refinancing options and allocating more federal money to Pell Grants and community colleges. One week before, the Obama administration announced its own proposal to expand the federal Pell Grant program to help students pay for more credit hours.

But Warren's and Obama's proposals, like many others before them, neglect a key principle currently missing from higher education: choice. Rather than focus on how students pay for their education, these policymakers need to ask why they're paying so much, and what they're paying for.

Millennials like me need more ways forward in higher education than the standard two or four-year degree path. There are options that can reduce the cost of higher education and even provide quality alternatives.

[READ: The Student Loan Crisis Is Really a Crisis of Educational Value]

Traditional college degrees are not only increasingly costly but also increasingly less valuable. More than 43 million Americans have taken on debt to pay for college, yet one recent survey showed that over 40 percent of graduates at "top" schools could not find careers in their chosen field.

Yet rather than empower students to pursue alternative paths, most federal lawmakers put more faith in the status quo. It's a well-documented fact that pumping more federal money into college just inflates costs. In fact, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York recently determined that every dollar of Pell Grants raises tuition by 55 cents. That's why proposals like Warren's and Obama's will only make the debt crisis worse.

Obama, Warren, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Sen. Bernie Sanders also advocate "free" community college – in other words, expanding public education to a K-14 or even K-16 system. This would only further entrench what often proves to be an unsuccessful one-size-fits-all education regime.

So what's the alternative? Students of all ages learn best when they have choices. Just as school choice has made a major difference in K-12 education, providing would-be college students with new alternatives can lead to higher-value higher education.

[READ: John Bel Edwards Won't End School Choice in Louisiana]

That's why our leaders should take their lessons from the school choice movement and apply it to higher education. This week is National School Choice Week, a perfect time to start the process.

It begins with reforming the accreditation process by decoupling federal financial aid from accreditation requirements. As it is now, colleges follow federally regulated accreditation standards, which are intended to guarantee quality and allow students to transfer credits from one school to another. Yet accreditation has done little to guarantee quality: Nearly 40 percent of students showed no learning improvement after four years at accredited institutions.

What current accreditations standards do well, however, is keep innovation out of higher education. Accreditors admit the process is "increasingly granular, narrowly focused on compliance," and often fails to accommodate newer, alternative methods of education. And students who rely on federal aid can only apply that aid at accredited institutions, establishing a pseudo-monopoly for established schools.

Greater choice can change this. Just as the state chartering process made charter schools possible and a key part of the school choice movement, states should have flexibility to experiment and innovate in their own accreditation standards. At the federal level, decoupling aid from accreditation and providing aid directly to students would empower them to explore new 21st century educational programs that work best for them, encouraging educators to engage in healthy competition.

[READ: Course Access Programs Make School Choice a Reality for Rural Students]

One such option is the Massive Online Open Course, or MOOC. These courses allow thousands of students to tap into online coursework as needed, and at far lower prices than traditional courses. They are widely supported by college provosts, and traditional institutions are starting to provide them, helping their students attain a more affordable education.

Other options should emphasize the mastery of subjects and skills rather than time spent in classrooms. Students should have more access to programs like CLEP, which allow them to "test out" and receive credit for courses in which they're already competent. This allows them to save money and free up education time for other classes.

Some programs even directly jumpstart a young person's career. Apprenticeships are a valuable example. Employees who complete an apprenticeship earn a salary of $50,000 per year, on average, without the $30,000 worth of debt many college students take on.

These are only a few of the options available, but it's more choices, not more federal spending, that will make college truly debt-free. Lawmakers must stop trying to cement the 20th century path to an education and start paving new ways forward for all generations.


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