We need a college leader as secretary of education

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Of the last six U.S. secretaries of education, three rose up from K-12 systems, and three had little or no background in education. The last higher education leader in the role was Lamar Alexander, former president of the University of Tennessee, whom George H.W. Bush appointed in the early 1990s.  

President-elect Biden has promised he’ll appoint a former schoolteacher to the post, and all the names under speculation come from K-12. But why not a college teacher?

While many people assume that the Department of Education focuses foremost on K-12 schools, annual federal spending on higher education (about $75 billion) nearly equals that spent on K-12 (about $79 billion). What’s more, several of our biggest national debates center on the federal role in higher education. With student loan debt exceeding $1.5 trillion, many Americans are questioning the value of a college education. Yet research consistently shows that a college degree remains one of the best investments a person can make.

Biden understands this and has proposed doubling the amount of federal Pell Grants, which have not kept up with the increasing cost of college. The administration will have to decide not just how much to allocate for Pell Grants, but also who else should receive them: incarcerated students, dual-enrollment high schoolers, adults in short-term job training programs?

Every serious contender for the Democratic presidential nomination, Biden included, proposed some form of “free college.” His administration will have to navigate what that really means: How many years of college should be free? Who will qualify? How will costs be divided between the federal government and states?

Depending on the answers, making college “free” may have unintended consequences, as would any attempt to address the 44 million Americans grappling with federal student loan debt. As calls to forgive a significant amount of debt are growing increasingly pervasive, and persuasive, the department will have to determine how much debt to forgive and who should be eligible, considering issues of racial equity (many more Black students default than do others) and income (whether wealthy students should benefit at all).  

The administration will also be faced with reinvigorating regulation of for-profit colleges, the only higher ed sector that has not faced major challenges to enrollment during the pandemic and the one most likely to leave students in debt without a degree (or with a degree of little value). The Obama administration enacted a rule to protect students from such institutions; the Trump administration repealed it.

Not long after COVID-19 ends, college enrollment is expected to drop significantly, with potentially dire consequences. Because of lowering birth rates, by 2025 U.S. colleges will face an estimated 15 percent enrollment decline. To avoid this drop, colleges will have to prevent more students from dropping out; improve graduation rates for Black and Latinx students, who graduate at lower rates than white Americans; and attract more of the tens of millions of working adults without a degree.

The Department of Education must strategically respond to this looming enrollment challenge. Ensuring a college-educated citizenry will be essential to rebuilding and sustaining a healthy economy. Once the recession ends, the labor-market demand for college graduates will almost certainly continue to grow, especially in key fields with projected shortages, like technology and health care. College enrollment is also key to ensuring a society of problem solvers. Deep political divisions have been fueled by unreliable analysis of evidence and mistrust in science. That must change if we are to unite to address impending threats — from climate change to criminal justice, from terrorism to health care costs. College classrooms are crucibles for thinking critically, basing arguments in evidence and engaging respectfully with others’ ideas. 

The vital role of colleges and the challenges they face are surely not news to President-elect Biden; after all, his wife, Jill, is a community college professor. He likely understands, too, that the best college presidents and chancellors are as qualified as the best K-12 superintendents and union leaders to run the Department of Education: they deftly navigate politics, lead complex organizations with thousands of employees and students, fight relentlessly for educational equity and understand that the most important work happens in the classroom.

Thirty years have passed since a higher education leader served as secretary of education. Given the issues that the department and our country are facing, it’s time to rectify this omission. 

Josh Wyner is a vice president at the Aspen Institute and executive director of its College Excellence Program. Linda Perlstein is an associate director at the College Excellence Program.

Tags Biden Dual enrollment Education Higher education in the United States Lamar Alexander Student debt Student loan U.S. Department of Education

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