“It’s not just about cost and debt.” That’s one big message from a lengthy speech delivered by Education Secretary Arne Duncan at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County last week. The address signaled a desire to move beyond the current national obsession from Congress, presidential candidates and others with “debt free” college, instead trying to broaden the higher education policy conversation to focus more on outcomes, quality and completion. Such debt fatigue is understandable, but student loans remain the best leverage point to a national conversation about higher education. The trick is not ditching debt from the discourse; it’s leveraging it to broaden the discussion.
There’s a structural reason that student debt dominates the higher education policy discussion: It affects a broader swath of Americans than those who have concerns about completion. Around 70 percent of students who earn a bachelor’s degree take on debt. Even among families making $120,000, about half still borrow. By contrast, just 11 percent of students from families earning $120,000 or more drop out of college, a rate three times lower than their peers from families making $30,000 or less.This article was originally published in U.S. News & World Report.