• Reading time:4 mins read

DISCLAIMERS: I was extremely fortunate to not need to take nearly as many loans as many of my peers for university. The loans I did take I’ve paid back, and I currently work for a community college. With that out of the way…

There’s been a lot of talk recently around forgiving student loan debt. Hold on! Before you click away and think I’m about to step on a landmine, I’m not taking a position there. Other than to say (and I don’t think this is particularly controversial) that if we’re going to forgive debt, it should be coupled with a plan to change how we pay for higher education. Without that, we’re just kicking the can down the road. Many proposals I’ve seen around around that usually involve some variety of state-paid community college. I’m not taking a position there, either.

However, I’d like take this opportunity to broaden the conversation a bit—to include -access to- (and the purpose of) higher education. Those two things are intertwined, but I’ll be talking mostly about the former here. I think we sometimes get too hyper-focused on the money. Yes, obviously, finances are an essential piece of the puzzle, but they aren’t the only piece. If our goal is access to quality higher learning experiences for as many people as want it, there are some other questions I think it’s worth asking, that I don’t often see discussed.

  • Taking fully-funded community college as an example, what does the success of that program look like?
  • What barriers do potential (or current) students face -other- than finances, that prevent them from continuing their eduction?
  • Are any of those barriers -more- significant than the financial hurdles? Or maybe better put, what portion of the barriers learners face are money-related?
  • What people or institutions are already providing leadership in addressing those other barriers, and how can their success be transferred?
  • We already face something of an adjunct crisis in higher education. How do programs like free community college address this? Assuming enrollment increases, how do we ensure institutions remain capable of providing high-quality learning experiences?
  • What do the different stakeholders (learners, parents, corporations, government, etc.) want out of a post-secondary education system? How does our current system fill (or not fill) those needs?
  • How does the vocational/technical training provided by community colleges (and increasingly 4-year universities) prepare learners to function in a world where we don’t even know what careers will exist 20 years from now?
  • Are there other models of learning that could be funded, that fill different learning gaps that community colleges and universities aren’t able to provide?
  • What do the best performing community colleges and universities do, and how can those models be shared (and adapted) to other colleges?

I’m not saying I have the answers to these questions. I’m not saying I’m the first to ask these questions. I’m not saying this list is comprehensive. I’m not denying that financial realities are a barrier to eduction. I’m not saying the current structures are inherently wrong, bad, or evil. I’m just saying that solving the money problem isn’t going to necessarily lead to the outcomes we think it will, particularly if we don’t clearly understand the outcomes we are aiming at, or the full context of the problem. Exploring these questions might lead us to solutions we hadn’t considered.

There’s almost never such a thing as a one-sided problem, with a catch all solution. It’s essential to try and see as much context as you can before leaping towards solutions.

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