Indiana Politicians Reassess Higher Education Amid Rough Economy

INDIANAPOLIS – For casual observers of higher education trends, Gov. Mitch Daniels’ statement that not every student should aim for a traditional college degree may have seemed strange, coming just before he was elected unanimously as the president of one of those top degree-granting institutions.

“For the first time, people are writing articles about (the questions): ‘Is college worth it?’ ‘Should so many people be going to college?’” Daniels said the day before he was appointed Purdue University’s new president last week. “There are more Americans today with college debt than with college diplomas. So there are an awful lot of people saying that, as important as it is, the way it is may need some changes.”

Spending on higher education and the value of a traditional college degree have increasingly become dominant topics in the national political debate as job growth continues to struggle and the cost of education increases.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau estimated in March that total student debt topped $1 trillion late last year, leading some economists and politicians to dub it the next massive credit “bubble” in danger of bursting. State support for higher education, meanwhile, has suffered along with almost every other area of government as the recession, and state lawmakers, shrank budgets across the nation.

The deflating of that bubble or reinforcing of it, depending on the political stance and perception has slowly built into a national debate in this election, which has politicians and academics reassessing traditional roles of American universities.

Daniels’ remarks echo similar sentiments from Indiana state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett and Republican gubernatorial candidate Mike Pence, who have talked about increasing the number of high school students graduating either with, or into, certification programs.

Pence’s first detailed policy proposal, in an election cycle decidedly centered on jobs and the economy, urged Indiana high schools to put more students in vocational education programs, which can land them in moderately skilled jobs immediately after graduation.

“We want an Indiana where people are graduating from high school with the ability to start on success. If success for them means they’re college bound or if they’re going to get an associate’s degree, or if they’re going to go to college, or if they’re going to graduate school, we want the broadest ranges of Hoosiers that are pursuing postsecondary education,” Pence said.

“But our schools also ought to work for Hoosiers that are just interested in starting their careers after high school and interested in getting into the workforce,” he said.

Patrick Callan, president of the California-based Higher Education Policy Institute, said the argument that not every student needs a bachelor’s degree falsely assumes there are advocates who say every American should get a four-year degree.

“The issue is less that than how much are we going to use price and affordability to decide who gets a degree,” Callan said

The American higher education system is facing a massive transition for the first time since World War II, Callan says, with many questions stemming from declining funds and the need to reassess how money is spent in the institutions themselves.

Indeed, in Washington, a battle has been fought over the last few months between Democrats and Republicans over whether to allow student loan interest rates to double on July 1.

President Barack Obama has ridden the issue as a campaign theme the last few months.

“It’s the surest path to finding a good job, earning a good salary, making it into the middle class,” Obama said in a speech at the White House last week, speaking of all postsecondary options.

At the center of the battle is an argument over the actual value of a traditional bachelor’s degree when weighed against the cost of tuition and increasing student debt loads.

Speaking the day after he was elected president of Purdue, Daniels praised his new university for innovations he says will help get students through college faster with less debt.

“The goal has got to be: a student can come to Purdue University, get a truly first-class education in which the degree, and the major, clearly, indisputably means they learned a lot while they were here,” Daniels said. “And that they leave either with no debt or with debt they will have no trouble repaying.”

Part of his final legislative agenda delivered to state lawmakers earlier this year was a plan to cap most bachelor’s degree requirements at 120 credits. The measure sparked a backlash from university leaders, who said it amounted to too much meddling by the state in internal matters.

Now Daniels will have a chance to test that hypothesis from inside the academy.