Today's students need more than just free college
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In recent months, free college and debt forgiveness proposals have emerged as a sort of litmus test for Democratic presidential hopefuls. And with good reason -- some 45 million Americans now owe more than $1.5 trillion in student debt. According to one estimate, the class of 2017’s student borrowers owe an average of $28,650. By 2023, 40 percent of all student borrowers are expected to default on their loans. 

The repercussions of the student debt crisis are profound, affecting everything from employment trends, to housing affordability, to when and whether people choose to marry and start families. What’s worse, we know that the specter of debt discourages college-going aspirations among first-generation and low-income Americans who stand to benefit most from higher education’s promise of social and economic mobility.

But cost is not the only challenge that today’s students are confronted with. And in our collective fixation on debt, we risk overlooking the opportunity to debate, and perhaps solve, the myriad other challenges that higher education is facing. Free college and debt forgiveness alone do not address the underlying need to modernize student support services, create more flexible pathways and programs, or respond to the growing misalignment between our higher education infrastructure and the demands of a labor market that is being transformed by the diffusion of emerging technologies.

Against that backdrop, it is imperative that we create policies tailored to today’s students, not just the pop culture archetype of the past. We must focus our attention not just on issues of access and debt, but also on retention and completion.

Today’s students -- in terms of age, race and income -- are more diverse than at any other time in history. Nearly 40 percent of college students are now older than 25. About 60 percent of students work while enrolled in college, and one-quarter of them are parents. About half are the first in their families to ever attend college. Nearly three-quarters of all undergraduate students now fit the historic definition of “non-traditional” student.

The failure of our institutions and policies to keep pace with those shifting demographics are, in part, to blame for the 40 percent of college students who never earn any kind of degree or certificate within eight years. Retention and completion is even lower among low-income students and students of color. While the graduation rates for wealthier students have increased over time, the graduation rates for low-income students have remained flat, increasing just half of a percentage point over a decade, even as attendance soared. 

In some ways, the challenge stems from the fact that while policymakers often hear from the higher education establishment, or constituents laden with debt, they hear precious little from the new majority of students struggling to balance commitments to work, family and school. Today’s students are busy. They are working hard to afford both school and life, and they often have neither the time nor the resources to serve as full-time advocates. They are charting a path rooted in a belief that earning and learning is possible, and their experiences -- and aspirations -- hold potential to inform a new era of higher education policy making.

I was therefore heartened to read about the creation of a new coalition that aims to fill the current void in public policy advocacy on behalf of today’s students. This coalition pairs veterans groups with student leaders, higher education practitioners with organizations focused on bridging the gap between college and jobs. They are fighting to expand supports for student parents and caregivers, incentivize evidence-driven strategies to boost completion, and update student aid rules to meet today’s students’ unique financial challenges. They argue that students deserve greater postsecondary accountability to protect their financial security and that improved postsecondary data systems will -- among other things -- ensure that they get the information they need to make critical decisions about their investment in postsecondary education.

As governor of North Carolina, I often sought the insight and experience of organizations who were on the cutting edge of policy innovation. And I was often skeptical of groups working to protect the status quo. I appreciated when advocates shared practical ideas for policy reform that were based on the real life experiences of our citizens -- and I was worried when I felt like the voices of those citizens were not being heard. The Today’s Students Coalition seemingly aims to fill both of these important roles. The forming of this new group is a welcome development, and an important step forward. But there is still much work to do. 

Addressing college costs and the burden of student debt are key challenges for policymakers, but these complex issues should leverage targeted and thoughtful reforms in order to create sustainable policies for the future. The challenges today’s students face require many voices to be aligned in support of the solutions that will best serve their needs -- and the long-term needs of our nation.

Bev Perdue is a former governor of North Carolina and is a senior advisor at Whiteboard Advisers.