Senator (and History PhD) Ben Sasse: How to Fix Higher EducationHistorians in the News
tags: higher education, student debt, Ben Sasse
Ben Sasse, a former university president, is a United States senator from Nebraska.
American higher education is the envy of the world, and it’s also failing our students on a massive scale. How can both be true simultaneously? Our decentralized, competitive system of research institutions is a national treasure, unparalleled in human history. We have the best universities, best professors, and best systems of discovery, and we attract the best talent. But the American educational system leaves many high-school graduates woefully unprepared for work or for life, whether or not they go to college. We leave behind more souls than we uplift.
Most young Americans never earn a college degree, and far too many of those who do are poorly served by sclerotic institutions that offer regularly overpriced degrees producing too little life transformation, too little knowledge transmission, and too little pragmatic, real-world value. Well-meaning and incredibly gifted members of faculties, administrations, and boards of trustees genuinely want to help students move up the ladder, but the current incentives don’t encourage the kind of programmatic innovation and pluralism that can help poor and middle-class Americans build a sufficiently durable foundation.
Decades into a digital revolution that will make lifelong work in any single sector rare, we need dynamism—not status quo–ism—in higher education. In our knowledge-intensive economy, we will need an ever-expanding, highly educated workforce. As important, we will need a broader base of wise, gritty learners. We cannot build what we need if we assume that the developmental experience of every 20-year-old will be the same.
We must build a university network that enhances social mobility, instead of reinforcing privilege. We need higher education to transform more lives by offering more accountability, more experimentation, more institutional diversity, more intellectual curiosity, more adaptive learning, and more degrees and certifications. We need a rethink, renewal, and expansion—tinkering around the edges won’t cut it.
Sadly, Washington is getting ready to subsidize failure. A mega-bailout in the form of student-debt forgiveness would prop up and excuse the broken parts of this system—missing the opportunity to go bigger and help college-age Americans from every class and community learn skills, enhance persistence, find work, and embrace the dynamic opportunities of the coming quarter century. Massive forgiveness of student debt would most help upper-class Americans who are going to be just fine without a bailout. It’s a regressive mistake.
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