Politics & Policy

Break Up the Higher-Ed Cartel

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Stifling bureaucracy blocks countless Americans’ access to innovative, affordable education.

Usually something costs more because it’s more valuable. But in higher education, the exact opposite appears to be happening.

The cost of college rises every year, forcing millions of Americans to take on a tremendous amount of debt. Yet, at the same time, the value of a traditional college degree has declined: A stunning 40 percent of recent college graduates now end up in jobs that do not require a college degree.

This is a troubling fact for those on the lower rungs of the economic ladder who need to acquire advanced skills to move up, and for middle-class parents struggling to ensure that their children end up better off than they were.

The root of the problem lies in government policies that have conflated the need for acquiring advanced knowledge and skills with obtaining a degree from a traditional brick-and-ivy university. As a result, federal law limits student aid only to students attending universities that receive a stamp of approval from a regional accreditation body. And only the Department of Education decides who gets to be an accreditor.

The resulting bureaucratic iron triangle — the Department of Education, regional accreditors, and colleges and universities — acts as a kind of education cartel that stifles new, innovative education models that could bring down the cost of acquiring the skills that are critical to securing good jobs and achieving higher earning potential.

To fix this, we need to open up an alternative market for education that gives students access to federal loan money to put towards non-traditional educational opportunities, such as online learning courses, vocational schools, and apprenticeships in skilled trades.

That’s why this week we introduced the Higher Education Reform and Opportunity (HERO) Act. Our reform would allow states to create their own accreditation systems, tailoring each one to fit the needs of the students and job market in that area. It would allow students to receive student aid to get the skills they need customized to their personal timelines and budgets.

It is unlikely, for example, that a single parent raising two children would be able to shoulder the cost and time commitment of a traditional four-year university. However, should a state decide to accredit opportunities such as online courses or part-time certification programs, that single parent could take classes on a schedule that works for them at a price that doesn’t create crippling debt later on.

Not only would the HERO Act expand secondary education to millions of Americans who are currently underserved, it would also help stabilize and decrease our nation’s skyrocketing education costs — outstanding student debt is now over $1 trillion. Our reform would begin to break the vicious cycle of ever-increasing government subsidies chasing ever-increasing tuition rates.

It is important to note that our proposed reforms do not jeopardize the federal accreditation system already in place, but instead recognize that individual states are equally able to identify where the current system is failing students and then accredit programs that will fill this void.

The current cartel of higher education has locked out non-traditional students and driven costs ever higher. By opening up our nation’s higher-education system to competitively priced alternative programs, traditional institutions would have to reexamine the pricing schemes that have led to the explosion of student-loan debt.

Fostering choices outside of the current education model will spur competition and encourage schools to lower costs — benefiting all students.

Our legislation is a simple, conservative reform to higher education that will shift power closer to the states and benefit millions of future students. It is time that we take this simple step towards ensuring a more prosperous future.

— Ron DeSantis is a Republican U.S. congressman from Florida. Mike Lee is a Republican U.S. senator from Utah.

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