We are facing an education crisis in this country.
While the value of continued education after high school is undeniable, our nation’s singular focus remains on the necessity of traditional four-year degrees, which come at a soaring cost to students and their families.
For many students, a classic bachelor’s degree earned at a brick-and-ivy university is a worthwhile investment that provides the necessary knowledge to succeed in their given field post-graduation. But that is certainly not the case for all students.
Estimates suggest that a quarter to nearly half of college graduates are underemployed, and often work in jobs that do not require a college degree. And college tuition does not come cheap—the amount of student loan debt held by the American people is now higher than credit card debt.
There has to be a better way to give our students the opportunities they deserve while helping drive down the astronomical educational costs that are burdening working-class families.
I recently introduced the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity (HERO) Act, a bill that would foster innovative solutions to the process of higher education accreditation and would essentially put choice and affordability back into the hands of students.
Our country’s burgeoning student loan debt has been driven, in part, by the accrediting agencies that accredit higher education bodies and decide who is worthy of government funding by way of student loans.
The regional accreditation bodies, the universities, and the Department of Education essentially act as a cartel that controls who can enter the system. This impedes the innovation that is needed to tackle high costs, lack of school choice, and the decline of value in four-year degrees.
The HERO Act aims to break up that cartel, opening up higher education to more Americans by empowering individual states to develop their own systems of accrediting educational programs. All accredited programs would then be eligible to receive federal student loan money.
The HERO Act would enable our post-secondary education system to become as diverse and nimble as the industries that are looking to hire.
States would be able to accredit nontraditional education options, such as single courses or vocational programs, to meet the particular needs of their local economy. Students would be able to put federal loan money toward single learning courses, online opportunities, and apprenticeships in skilled trades.
Freeing up states to decide how they wish to accredit education options would spark a new era of competition. Trade schools and nontraditional organizations could directly compete for funding, making their appeals to students who have a variety of interests and seek a return on their investment.
Florida could decide to accredit specialized mechanics apprenticeship programs to cater to our robust flight industry, while California might empower Silicon Valley companies to teach coding programs to students who do not necessarily need a four-year degree.
Not only would the HERO Act allow states to fulfill the educational needs they have identified, but it would give students far greater flexibility to tailor their education to their needs. With the fast pace of innovation and an ever-changing economy, workers can often find themselves in need of educational programming mid-career.
Under the reforms proposed by the HERO Act, students could take shorter courses catered to their specific educational needs rather than leave the workforce completely to go back to school.
It is important to note that this bill would not alter current federal accreditation systems. Federal agencies would, however, have to recognize that individual states are on equal footing to know where the current system is failing, and to accredit programs that will fill this void.
Greater competition would force colleges and universities to reassess their federally subsidized pricing practices and help break the cycle of government subsidies that contributes to rising tuition rates. Some students may no longer choose time-consuming and costly four-year degrees if another educational opportunity at a lower cost could impart the necessary knowledge and skills.
Additionally, the HERO Act would require institutions to publish information regarding student success, to prove that they are fiscally accountable, and to ensure schools are held accountable for student loan defaults.
The HERO Act would expand higher education opportunities to millions of Americans who are underserved by our current system. We cannot allow the iron triangle that currently controls accreditation to stifle innovation and shut out potential students from accessing higher education in a manner that works for them.
Simply put, receiving a four-year degree is not the only means of achieving career success, and our federal education policy should reflect that truth.