Quaker Universalist Conversations

Higher Education Student Debt

A Book Review of Steven Brint, Two Cheers for Higher Education (2018)

Steven Brint, Two Cheers for Higher Education: Why American Universities Are Stronger Than Ever-and How to Meet the Challenges They Face (2018) is an optimistic and clarifying presentation of the strengths, weaknesses, and challenges faced by higher education in the U.S. and, by implication, in the world.  In the author’s confident view, higher education is growing and expanding, while facing challenges.

The book’s two cheers for current U.S. higher education excellence are academic innovationism (particularly in the sciences) to address pressing economic and environmental problems in national and global society and the opening of access of a pool of more diverse students to higher education, for students previously excluded, embracing diversity equity as a priority value in higher education.  This combination of higher education innovation and broadened access is a global phenomenon.  Progress may be slower or faster depending on circumstances, but both the U.S. higher education and world higher education are vigorous and sustaining.  It is a universal, positive assessment of U.S. higher education.

The author brings a broad view to assessment of current higher education. He writes from a University of California perspective on the frontier of the core of higher education.  The challenges to higher education everywhere in the world include:

  1. Affordability
  2. Student debt
  3. Online competition
  4. Contentious speech
  5. Government financial investment
  6. Governance
  7. Teaching quality
  8. Bureaucracy
  9. Patron priorities (government and private donors)

One serious issue that links strength, weakness, and challenge for higher education is student debt, which the author explores clearly.  The problem is complex, from U.S. students graduating with tens of thousands of dollar debt to non-graduating students who cannot bear the debt burden, to African students unable to support school fees.  This treatment of student debt is worth the book’s price.

The student debt reality is described, but the debt solution is not clearly discussed in this book.  For example the book does not thoroughly discuss the elements essential to solving the social problems of student debt including:

  • a regulatory mechanism to cap college tuition and fees as a condition for college eligibility to provide federal Pell Grants;
  • linking Pell Grant funding levels to tuition and fee inflation;
  • shifting from student loans to post-graduation income share agreements that engage the financial sector; and
  • shifting scholarship program criteria priorities from merit to need.  

The solution has several parts, but all are doable and desirable.

Quakers:

This book contains no mention of Quakers and the historic contributions of Quakers to U.S. higher education in the U.S., particularly in the 19th century.  Currently, Quaker colleges offer no innovation in leadership in addressing student debt.  No Quaker college offers a model for addressing student debt that is useful for other colleges.  Education is not an element of the testimonies of Quakers to date.

Questions:

  • Should Quakers have some notable role in higher education?
  • What role can Quaker testimonies have in guiding Quakers to address student debt?
  • How can Quakers contribute to the universal challenge of student debt in other areas of the world?

Resources:

Steven Brint, Two Cheers for Higher Education: Why American Universities Are Stronger Than Ever-and How to Meet the Challenges They Face (Princeton University Press, 2018)

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