Viewpoint: Demand Real Change In Higher Education

It's time to trade in big government policies for innovation

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Former Massachusetts Gov. and Republican candidate for president Mitt Romney participates in a 6th grade language class at Universal Bluford Charter School on May 24, 2012 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

My father had a favorite saying: “Nothing is as vulnerable as entrenched success.” When I think about the future of American higher education and its importance to our nation’s long-term success, his cautionary advice comes to mind.

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We are rightly proud of our extraordinary universities and other institutions of higher learning. Many of the most important scientific breakthroughs occur in their labs, and young people from around the world flock to their campuses to study. For decades, we have known that these institutions were promoting inquiry, inspiring creativity and ultimately preparing our citizens for success.

But today our higher-education system faces serious challenges. During the last election, President Obama genuinely inspired young Americans with a promise of hope and change. On college campuses across our country, he promised an excited generation that he would help them. Four years later, those promises have turned to disappointments.

Tuition has increased by 25% — even faster than health care costs. The President added tens of billions of dollars in federal funding, and yet more than three-quarters of families now say they feel higher education is unaffordable. Total student debt has reached $1 trillion, and the average student who borrows now graduates with $25,000 in debt. Perhaps worst of all, these students are graduating into an economy in which only half can even find jobs that match their degrees.

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The future isn’t a hopeful place for these students. The American people face an important choice: Will we continue with President Obama’s approach of more deficit spending, offering only debt forgiveness as an answer because earnings are low and possibilities are limited? Or will we pursue genuine reforms that strengthen the system and ensure our youth can afford an education that gives them an opportunity to succeed?

I am running for President because I refuse to accept that bigger government programs, more debt and fewer opportunities is the best we can do. As President, I will provide the leadership we need to meet this crisis head-on. I spent most of my career in the private sector, where the only way to prevent entrenched success from giving way to decline is to adapt, to compete, to innovate. We must pursue policies that inject this same spirit into higher education.

Some of our institutions have begun these efforts, but we must redouble them. We also need to expand the options available to students. Other models of advanced skills training are becoming ever more important to success in the American economy, and new educational institutions will be required to fill those roles.

Innovation is only part of the solution. We must also address costs. While the federal government has an important role to play in providing access through financial aid, the uncontrolled flood of federal dollars into the system is not the answer. To the contrary, endless government support only fuels skyrocketing tuition. And at a time when America is facing record deficits and debt, more spending is simply not an option.

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We can provide opportunity without bankrupting this country, but America needs a new approach. While the President has decided to nationalize the student-lending process, I believe that private-sector competition is more important than ever. Students and their families must be given the information they need to intelligently weigh the costs and benefits of the many options available to them.

Better information about products and services helps consumers make more-informed choices, and nowhere is this as important as when students consider a postsecondary education. We can offer families more information while streamlining the system to make it simpler and easier to understand.

Finally, it is crucial that we focus not only on access to higher education but also on successful completion. Far too many students drop out before finishing their degree, ending up dis­enchanted and in debt. We need to make sure that students have the support and preparation they need to thrive in a postsecondary environment. As President, I will work with Congress to achieve fundamental education reform that gives every student the opportunity to succeed.

Our economy is demanding more advanced skills and more varied skills every day. Our higher-education system must be responsive to these demands if it is to offer students an attractive return on their investment, prepare them for successful careers and help America compete in the global marketplace.

MORE: President Obama’s View on Higher Education Reform