Reform higher ed in Michigan

Kevin Gardner

There’s no easy way to say it: Higher education in Michigan is failing, and young people are suffering as a result. Not only are college costs skyrocketing, but student loan debt is through the roof — and so is youth unemployment. Even worse, our public institutions are abusing their relationship with the taxpayers who fund them by sneakily avoiding transparency.

Young people deserve better than this, and we expect Michigan lawmakers to fight for our futures.

Higher education reform is an uphill battle, but young people in Michigan are desperate for it. Some 62 percent of graduates have an average of almost $30,000 in student loan debt. Even worse, more than 14 percent of young people in the Great Lakes State are unemployed. Gov. Rick Snyder has acknowledged these serious problems, pointing out that college is not adequately preparing young people for the workforce.

There are fundamental flaws in the higher education system that affect young people by driving up college costs and discouraging innovative approaches to post-secondary schooling. Consequently, while the price tag for a college degree has gone up by 500 percent over the last 20 years, young people have been blocked from pursuing new educational alternatives.

The most critical change that must occur is accreditation reform.

Currently, institutions receive a so-called seal of approval from one of six regional accrediting agencies. These accreditors are little more than glorified gatekeepers of government money, but without their approval, colleges cannot receive federal funds. Whether or not an institution receives accreditation has nothing to do with the quality of programs offered or how prepared students are to enter the workforce — it’s a matter of money and money alone, meaning that start-ups with limited capital probably won’t be able to get through the gate.

This faulty system directly impacts young people, as students can only receive financial aid if they enroll in an accredited institution. Not only does it limit their options when it comes to higher education, but it places no value whatsoever on student success rates. As a result, it’s practically impossible to hold underperforming institutions accountable. Students, meanwhile, are given little access to information about their college’s success rates prior to enrolling in the institution.

Just last year, Snyder expressed concern that the broken system of higher education is responsible for over 80,000 Michigan jobs remaining vacant. If innovative programs, online courses, or even apprenticeships could receive accreditation and in turn offer students financial aid, my generation would be better qualified to fill many of these vacant roles.

By increasing choice and expanding the higher education marketplace, costs will inevitably decrease — and so will student loan debt.

Snyder is joined by Congressman Tim Walberg and State Rep. Bob Genetski in holding the sentiment that higher education in Michigan needs immediate reform. Walberg has questioned why so many students require remedial classes, concluding that colleges are being encouraged to essentially manufacture students. Genetski, for his part, has expressed concern that our state is spending too much taxpayer money on institutions with student success rates that simply don’t match up.

The truth behind these lawmakers’ concerns is that accreditation reform must be considered in order to tackle the issues plaguing my generation. The answer is not regulation or more government spending but rather endowing young people with greater freedom and more choice. If the options are available, our entrepreneurial attitude will make education work for us.

Kevin Gardner is Michigan state director for Generation Opportunity, a youth advocacy organization.