Coffee Break: Kevin Carey on ESSA, Paying Back Student Loans and 'The End of College'

While much of the education conversation focuses on getting kids college ready, the New America Foundation’s Kevin Carey takes a hard look at what it is we’re getting kids ready for, in his new book “ The End of College.” He shares his thoughts on the technology-driven transformation of higher education and the need to for us to come to terms with the fact that “college is undeniably a bad financial deal for a non-trivial number of people.” Are you a tea drinker or coffee drinker, and how do you take it? Coffee. Cream, no sugar. Your recent book, “The End of College,” suggests that online, self-directed learning could replace the brick-and-mortar university. How quickly will that happen and what’s holding it up? Information technology has vast and largely untapped potential to make higher education more effective, more accessible, and less expensive. I don't, however, think it will be mostly "self-directed." People need direction to learn—that's what education is, arguably. And in fact brick-and-mortar universities don't provide all that much direction now, which is one reason a lot of students drop out of college. I think we'll see the rise of a new kind of educational organization, built from the ground up in a way that makes sense given what technology can do now, and in the future. It will probably take about 15 years for them to really take hold, given how entrenched traditional colleges are in our culture and systems of government. You also state, in pretty strong terms, that traditional college education is mostly a waste of money, as other books like “ Academically Adrift ” confirm. If for no other reason, doesn’t the clear evidence about higher earnings of college graduates justify the expense? Some people do learn valuable things in college. Nursing programs, for example, are closely tied to professional norms and a high-demand field. Some of the college wage premium is a function of sorting and selecting students who were smarter, and thus more likely to succeed in the job market, in the first place. There's also a process of acculturation, learning how to succeed in a large, impersonal organization, which is pretty important to succeeding in the modern white-collar economy. Higher earnings for college graduates are also a function of the bottom dropping out of the market for people who haven't graduated from college. And while it's true that grads have higher average earnings, there's a whole lot of variation on either side of that average. College is undeniably a bad financial deal for a non-trivial number of people. So while college still beats the alternative, most of the time, that doesn't mean it can't be a lot better and affordable for more people. What’s wrong with having college-educated students serving us coffee? Presumably they are all more enlightened, if underemployed? You can't pay your student loans back with enlightenment. More people are in default on their loans now than ever before, despite the long economic recovery. Is tuition-free public university as proposed by Hillary Clinton a good idea? Will it mean more people go to college but they are even less motivated to learn, or will it give more people a better shot at a good life? Tackling the big problem of increased college tuition and student borrowing is a good idea. So is a major new federal investment in college affordability, and renegotiation of the terms of higher education federalism, to prevent states from continuing to disinvest in their colleges and universities, leaving students to borrow to make up the difference. The specific idea of free college is problematic, for reasons I've outlined here and here. Hillary's original plan for debt-free college was better. Any other thoughts on the state of education reform in the age of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and the rise of the local control zealots? Unfortunately, I think we're going to have to re-learn some old lessons, which is that local school districts left to their own devices often sink into mediocrity and neglect low-income and minority students. The idea that ESSA will "unleash innovation" by removing the shackles of federal regulation is a bunch of nonsense happy talk. It's sad to see members of the progressive coalition making common cause with anti-federalist Tea Party zealots. You'd think that would give them pause.
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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