As we enter a season in which reauthorizing the Higher Education Act is a top legislative priority, the discourse of opportunity and affordability sets the terms and terrain of debate and struggle. As I argued here a few months ago, there are serious consequences to the limitations such an authoritative discourse places on our imaginations. Rather than seek to contextualize and displace this discourse here today, I will attempt to rearticulate it. For there are at least two paths toward improving access to and affordability of higher education in the U.S. that I haven't seen discussed much this year.
The first involves combining the gap year with the idea of national service. Taken separately, both ideas have their serious critics, who have marshalled formidable arguments against each. Combining them, however, should answer both the objections from the left that the gap year reduces access and affordability and from the right that national service offers little by way of compensation to those doing it. What higher education needs now is a new G.I. Bill, that is, but one that broadens the notion of national service beyond military service, offering a range of options to those who choose to serve in order to finance their post-secondary education (say, modelled after the National Guard, the Peace Corps, Teach for America, and so on). The basic mechanism is simple: for every year of service, the federal government issues a voucher worth the average total of tuition and fees in U.S. higher education for that year. (Obviously this creates an incentive for cost-conscious students to spread it out over more than a year at colleges and universities whose costs are below that average.)
The second involves rethinking the timing of payments for higher education. I call it the "Let's Make a Deal" model for financing higher education. Right now, students and their parents need to beg, borrow, steal, and work to pay tuition and fees upfront. (Thanks to the generosity of the State of NY [not!], that's exactly what my family is doing to finance the Full Metal Archivist's graduate studies in Library Science.) No $$, no classes. Even though there are many opportunities for scholarships, grants, and loans to help discount tuition/fees and extend credit toward paying the rest, sticker shock alone is too often enough to drive many worthy students and their families away from even thinking of paying for their post-secondary education. What if colleges and universities offered other options to prospective students? Take the back-end option, for instance: in lieu of paying tuition or fees, entering students sign contracts to pay .1% of any pretax income they earn while they are pursuing a post-secondary degree, .25% in their first decade after graduation, .5% in their second, .75% in their third, and 1% in their fourth decade and after until retirement, when their obligation to their alma mater expires. (Of course, a system would have to be put into place that included mandatory payroll deductions and enforceable penalties for attempts to evade it, but implementation issues can wait for now.)
So, Blogoramaville, what say you? Can you all come up with other paths?