When it comes to higher ed, there's no debate about what today's students need
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Think of a presidential primary campaign like a boisterous family discussion around the holiday dinner table. Everyone has their own ideas, many disagree, and the arguments are loud, lively, and passionate.

This seems especially true on debate nights, when it feels like the candidates have brought their ideas, their barbs and their zippy one-liners right into our living rooms. And yes, the debates can be a slog—to wit, the increasingly torturous questions about paying for various health care plans—but at their best the candidate debates are the rare chance to hear inspired rhetoric and a finely articulated vision of the best version of America we can be.

Over the course of four debates, we’ve heard substantive discussions about immigration, public safety, foreign policy and health care. But we’ve been left short when it comes to education, with the issue getting little to no mention—especially higher education.

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In fact, if you judged solely by the debates, you might get the impression that the only issues that matter in American higher education are free college, debt forgiveness, and relitigating aspects of our student loan system.

This is not to say that these aren’t important issues—they surely are—and it’s also important to note that a number of campaigns have significantly more nuanced higher education plans on their websites. But that’s not what we’re hearing under the bright lights of these high-profile debate nights.

So, in advance of the fifth primary debate on Nov. 20 in Atlanta, here are some essential ideas and issues for discussion, all of which hugely impact students’ lives:

  • It starts with racial equity. It cannot be said urgently enough that all discussions of higher education in America need to focus on equity. We must confront systemic disparities and redesign our higher education system to give all Americans—regardless of race, income, and other socioeconomic factors—a fair shot at success. We track the numbers on our Stronger Nation website and the distressing reality is that fewer than a third of black, Hispanic, and Native American adults in this country have a credential beyond the high school diploma, compared with nearly half of white adults. Too many people who want to learn are being left behind.
  • Focus on student outcomes. We need to hear candidates advance a quality agenda for higher education that includes innovative and flexible options for learning and training—all focused on student learning outcomes. The prevailing public narrative is that college is no longer worth it, that the oft-cited $1 million lifetime earning premium for degree holders is not a golden ticket, but rather a tarnished brass ring just out of grasp. We certainly disagree with that view. The best way to convince Americans of all walks of life that learning after high school remains an assured path to the middle class, is to focus relentlessly on quality in terms of whether credentials lead to both more education and training as well as promotions and better jobs or careers.
  • Understand the needs of today’s students. We want to hear a passionate conversation about who today’s students actually are. If you went only by stock photos, you’d think that the typical college student is still the ivy-draped, frisbee-throwing 18-year-old. That couldn’t be more wrong. Today’s students are likely to be older, working, and have families and children of their own. Today’s students have fought in our wars and started their own businesses. They are socioeconomically and racially diverse, and they want to follow an education path that fits their unique needs. Today’s students are not—and let’s be clear on this point—kids. These are the students we want to hear about. Because to meet their fast-changing needs, we must first understand them.
  • Talk about Pell grants. We want to hear someone, anyone, use this valuable national airtime to talk substantively about Pell grants. This program is the rock upon which we’ve built historic and enduring gains in access to higher education. You can hardly turn around in Washington without tripping over a lawmaker with a personal story about how the grant helped them succeed, and a 2018 economics paper even found that the Pell program pays for itself through tax receipts on increased earnings. And yet the purchasing power of Pell has steadily eroded over time, worn away by the dual forces of inflation and ever-increasing college costs. The rainy-day surplus—added in the last reauthorization of the Higher Education Act as a hedge against calamity—has been raided more than once in recent years, bringing Pell’s funding shortfall year closer and closer, even as we sit here on the eve of the next recession. More crucially, the program is long overdue for an update. As today’s students increasingly turn to new, innovative higher education models, the old-school structure of Pell is an awkward fit.

As we gather this week for another campaign debate, followed by still another in December, it’s vitally important to keep students— not institutions, and not the higher education system itself—at the center of the policy discussion. And it’s a discussion that needs full airing by all parties in all forums; there is no shortage of stages from which we need to hear how these ideas and others can enhance the learning and earning power of all Americans. It’s well past time for higher education to have a place at this table.

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation and the author of America Needs Talent. Jesse O’Connell is the foundation’s strategy director for federal policy and is based in Washington, D.C.