Make college affordability about accountability

June is fast turning into college affordability month on Capitol Hill. A fresh crop of college graduates, a final push for midterm election talking points, and the impending retirement of HELP Committee Chairman Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) have all raised the profile of student debt. But while promoting opportunity is essential, we can do more to address affordability by focusing on accountability — for schools and for students.

It is undeniable that rising student debt burdens are imposing a tremendous strain on young Americans. Though 70 percent of borrowers have outstanding loans of less than $25,000, all are struggling under the weight of a slow-growth economy.

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Yet forgiving all of the student loans and interest payments in the world still doesn't address why the postsecondary education system has become so unaffordable. Neither will blindly throwing more money into Pell Grants, a program with unknown effectiveness.

Instead, the best way to address affordability is through accountability. Such policies would approach this by enabling more alternative pathways into the workforce, in a way that promotes competition to the four-year model. If done right, underperforming schools will shape up or ship out, and young borrowers would have the flexibility to choose the best postsecondary platform for them.

Giving young Americans more options includes helping community colleges stand on their own, as centers of career and technical expertise. For example, reauthorizing the Perkins Act will provide a funding stream for programs that work with local employers to provide students with the right skills for employment. Instead of seeing community colleges solely as a vehicle for four-year institution transfers, policymakers should see the potential of community colleges as its own workforce vehicle. A recent letter from 200 major U.S. employers requesting that Congress renew the act makes this point loud and clear.

Policies should also encourage colleges to embrace hybrid models of education. This will better prepare students for the evolving demands of employers, through incorporating online learning, software applications and even employer-based externships. Indeed, the future of workforce development may look very different from the "sage on a stage" model of teaching today. A new McKinsey study on global trade flows highlights that in the data-driven economy, education is virtually free and knowledge-sharing can be anytime, anywhere. Moreover, embracing a hybrid model can save costs — enhance affordability — through a more effective allocation of resources. This may require reforms to accreditation criteria, currently focused on the credit hour instead of being competency-based, or experimentation with Pell Grants.

Still, we must be careful about how we get from affordability to accountability. Directly tying federal student aid to metrics such as employment outcomes, rankings or tuition is a slippery slope. Consider what happens when we discover institutions are manipulating data or decreasing opportunity by strategically targeting enrollments. Regulators will have the inclination to add more rules, to the point where universities are bound to the very status quo practices that need reform, afraid of change.

For example, the Department of Education's controversial "gainful employment" rules, due to be finalized later this year, tie federal student aid to for-profit institutions to stricter graduate employment outcomes. Certainly there are some bad-apple institutions that take advantage of students, which is behind the push to punish all for-profits as harshly as possible. But it's not clear how much these rules will accomplish — new research suggests the higher default rates at for-profits can be attributed almost entirely to dropouts, not graduates.

That brings up a final point: Accountability cannot be limited to colleges and universities. Students also play a part in determining their future. That means having the information they need and the ability to use it to make smart borrowing decisions. Young Americans suffer from a profound lack of financial literacy and confidence, which will have lifelong consequences. Student loans are just one part, but we can see this manifesting in young people's general risk-aversion to other investment — in retirement accounts, in homeownership, and in high-yield assets that build wealth long-term. The Treasury Department is making good efforts to address this, but policymakers must make this a bigger priority.

College advocates rightly worry that rhetoric on student debt is scaring people away from college at a time when a high-school diploma doesn't cut it. Yes, we must have policies that promote access and opportunity. But these policies must also promote accountability as the way to make college affordable. The best way to do that is by enabling more postsecondary pathways and by equipping young people with the skills they need to choose the right paths for them.

Carew is an economist and director of the Young American Prosperity Project at the Progressive Policy Institute.