Dr. Cecilia Rouse, dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, addressed a packed classroom about affordable and accessible education in the United States. Armed with insights from her years as a member of President Barack Obama’s Council of Economic Advisors, she outlined three challenges to the post-secondary education system: lagging completion rates, heavier student debt and the rising tuition.
The presentation focused on one aspect of the U.S. higher education crisis in particular: low college completion rates. Rouse noted that among those who start four-year degrees, only 60 percent actually have them after six years.
Rouse cited the inadequate academic preparation of high school students entering college as one of the major problems contributing to poor completion rates. She argued that “part of the disconnect is our K-12 system. It is so decentralized.” Without a more comprehensive benchmark for measuring academic preparedness, students would continue to drop out of secondary institutions due to academic challenges.
Another cause of lagging completion rates was what Rouse called “complicated lives.” Relevant especially for those attending community college, risk factors such as working a full-time job, children and the burdens of everyday life were impediments to completing a college education.
To combat these risk factors, Rouse suggested that experiments on microfinancing for students showed promise. Small loans so that students could fix their car and pay their rent could positively affect completion outcomes.
Other solutions, such as simplifying complicated financial aid forms, could also mitigate the rise in student loan debt. An advantage of more accessible loan information would be an increase in the number of students that consider attending college, which could directly benefit the labor market.
Perhaps the most exciting potential solution to underwhelming completion rates and the rising cost of education is what Rouse calls e-learning. Though start-up costs are high, open-enrollment courses have revealed new possibilities that experts are looking at closely—though they have yet to deal with issues such as cheating and fraud.
Rouse explained, “My own view is that e-learning is here to stay, but I encourage us to proceed cautiously.”
Rouse’s well-informed lecture had many students buzzing about the various approaches to solving the post-secondary education crisis.
Editor’s note: Rouse’s lecture on September 19 was part of the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative lecture series. For more information and a schedule of future events, please visit the Penn Wharton Public Policy Initiative website.