Student debt remains one of the most potent issues in America today. Most of the political focus — unsurprisingly, as we enter a presidential election year — is on forgiving debt and/or making public college tuition free.
Such proposals would not only punish those who have paid off their loans or avoided taking out loans in the first place, but push the debts of a minority of individuals who earned the benefit of an education onto taxpayers who gained no such advantage. Before going to such drastic lengths, shouldn’t we first see whether there are ways to improve the current system?
It turns out there are ways to do that, and they are happening in Georgia.
At the behest of then-Gov. Nathan Deal, the University System of Georgia has been charged with increasing the number of Georgians who complete a college degree. Higher enrollment at our colleges and universities is fine, but the important thing is for those students to graduate. The worst spot for a young person is to borrow a substantial amount of money without having a degree to show for it because he won’t realize the higher wages needed to repay the loans.
The USG found a key indicator of whether a student will graduate is whether he has finished a handful of core courses – chief among them, English and math courses. But it’s not only important to pass the courses; passing them in one’s first year of college is crucial.
These statistics tell the story: A student is twice as likely to graduate if he passes both a math class and a writing class in his first year than if he completes only one. He’s 10 times more likely to graduate if he passes both in his first year than if he doesn’t pass either one.
With that in mind, the USG set out to ensure students take and pass those classes in their first year. A key barrier for many students was the need for remedial education before being deemed ready for college-level math or writing courses. (Ultimately, our K-12 schools need to do a better job preparing students for college.)
The prospects were grim: Only about 20 percent of students who took a traditional remedial math class went on to pass a true college-level math class; it was about 45 percent for English. Increasing completion rates — and thereby ensuring students who borrowed money to attend college actually got degrees — meant improving those percentages.
The eventual innovation was to have students go ahead and enroll in the college-level courses, even if they previously would have qualified for remedial courses, and instead give them support services to help them learn the material. That model led to 63 percent of students who would have needed remediation passing college-level math, and 74 percent passing English.
Why did that work? Officials offer a few reasons. Having to take two courses (including the remedial course) rather than one makes it harder for some students to stay in school. It was better for students to learn what they needed to know when they needed to know it, rather than learning it in a remedial course and then having to recall the material in a later course. And it simply gave students more self-confidence, and the motivation to keep going, to know they were in “real” college courses rather than remedial classes.
Completion isn’t the only factor in student debt. While politicians have argued in the past over how much interest should be charged on student loans, the real problem is the principal borrowed. With that in mind, USG is redesigning the software students use to access their loans so that they more easily understand how much they will have to repay — and so they see the alternatives to maxing out the amount they borrow.
These aren’t panaceas, but they are solid steps toward making sure college pays off for those who need some help paying for it.
Kyle Wingfield is president and CEO of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation: www.georgiapolicy.org.