Sen. Sasse: How to really fix higher ed

The Nebraska senator and former university president says rather than wiping the slate clean on student debt, Washington should take a hard look at reforming a broken system.

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.

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