Not in My Own Backyard: Rand Paul’s College Affordability Problem
April 7, 2015
Now that Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) is the second official candidate for President, let’s turn our attention to some of the pressing questions he might face on the campaign trail.
It’s inevitable that at some point, voters in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada will ask:
How will you make college more affordable?
Poll after poll shows that rising tuition is a top concern for middle class families. Sticker price has risen over 4 ½ times the rate of inflation, and wages for the poor, working-class, and even middle-class families are falling behind. The combination has led families to borrow bigger and bigger loans.
Senator Paul is likely to tout the same old Republican solutions: less regulation of colleges, more on-line education, and more boot-strap responsibility.
But what Rand Paul should do instead on the question of college affordability is to search for answers in his own backyard: Bowling Green, Kentucky. Western Kentucky University graduates only one-quarter (27%) of full-time freshmen in four years. Western Kentucky’s graduation rate nearly doubles to 50 percent when you consider a time period stretching six years from initial enrollment.
In fact, not one college in Kentucky has a four-year graduation rate that exceeds 30 percent. Not one has a six-year rate that exceeds the national average, and only three have a six-year rate that exceeds 50 percent.
Think about it: at 5 in 8 Kentucky public colleges, full-time students have a less than 50-50 chance of graduating with a bachelor’s degree in six years. Their fate is better defined with a flip of a coin.
The likelihood of graduating in four years, or at all, is so rare that Kentucky students have nicknames – “super-seniors” and “super-juniors” – to identify students who have over-stayed their time at the university.
All of this suggests that Rand Paul, like all candidates for President, should reframe the college affordability question to:
- Why are students taking five and six years to earn a four-year bachelor degree? and
- Why are only half of all students graduating?
There is a lot we need to do to improve college affordability. But of all the possible policy solutions that could address our national college affordability issue – such as expanding financial aid, expanding higher education supply, promoting education innovation – it’s clear that there’s a well-defined place to start: shorten the time to degree.
We’re not talking about three year degrees. If we could just get students academically prepared in high school to go on to college level work without the need for remediation and then get them through college to a four-year degree in say, four years, we could make college more affordable and improve the return on investment.
Eventually, politicians are going to realize that fixing the college dropout problem fixes a big chunk of the college affordability problem.
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