As soon as the White House announced its latest student loan debt relief initiative late last month, critics and advocates began to weigh in. Some have argued that saddling Americans with a whopping $ 1.7 trillion student debt has made it impossible for many to buy homes, start families, and help the economy grow. Others argued that a loan is a loan and that the government shouldn’t be bothering to bail out adults who have made commitments they understand perfectly.. There is no doubt that student debtors need help – nearly one in three students already think they will never pay off their loans, and unlike other types of debt, student loans cannot be forgiven for bankruptcy., which means they will probably last forever.
While there may be a place for some form of debt cancellation, it’s not a long-term solution. If you really want to pay off student debts, you have to fix college. How? By reducing costs, offering more courses that the job market actually needs, and dramatically improving outcomes. Students need to earn degrees faster and tailor learning to achieve their academic and professional goals. Traditional universal curricula are no longer relevant in this economy and employability numbers bear this out.
Two statistics illustrate the state of our current higher education sector. According to the National Center for Education, the cost of attending college increased by a whopping 169% between 1980 and 2020, while the earnings of Americans between the ages of 22 and 27 increased by a much more modest 19%. For most Americans, this meant taking on debt and often graduating without the skills to pay it off. Which brings us to the second statistic: last year, in a survey of two-year and four-year college recent graduates, 21% said their colleges did not provide them with the right job skills and 38% said that occasionally or rarely used the skills learned. Half did not apply for entry-level jobs because they felt underqualified.
Put simply, colleges charge far more than the employment results they could produce. And that doesn’t even take into account the 38 percent of college students who won’t graduate, often stuck with debt but no degree. Education was the great equalizer; for this to happen again, we must require colleges to demonstrate a clear return on investment.
To do this we must embrace technology, not only to reduce college costs, but to ensure that what we teach translates into actual success in the job market. There is a model for this. During the global COVID-19 pandemic, colleges around the world developed online or hybrid academic experiences that provided, at the very least, basic educational needs, while ensuring their students stayed connected and informed. As data from over a decade confirms, digital learning works because it allows for greater access to academic resources at much lower cost and with greater personalization.
Today, most students – who on average are 25 or older, already employed, typically women and often parents – have to trade between learning and income. Online and hybrid models offer the flexibility many students need to juggle education, work, and family life. A recent survey conducted by the American Psychological Association confirms this; Most respondents said they appreciate not only the flexibility of digital learning, but also its wide range of learning resources and methods.
But if the “how” is a question, the “what” is another and that “what” is more real-world skill. Surveys overwhelmingly suggest that the main reason students go to college is to find good jobs. University degrees would be much more meaningful if graduates could compete in an increasingly global and highly digital economy. This does not mean that every college should become a training ground for programming. Rather, they need to strengthen digital-first training such as remote collaboration, multi-source research, and real-time project evaluation.
More and more, we see employers are valuing university degrees less and less. We need to change that by allowing young Americans to customize education to acquire the skills that will create real careers. Otherwise, we are simply condemning them to high university costs for an education that many students may not use and cannot repay.
The richest and largest country in the world needs more than just debt relief; needs a new student agreement to ensure we can continue to compete.
Dan Rosensweig is CEO of the educational technology company Chegg