By Sen. Marco Rubio
Unfortunately, they didn’t make enough money to save for my college tuition, nor did I qualify for academic scholarships. Instead, I had to rely on Pell grants and student loans to pay for my undergraduate and legal education. Without these financial assistance programs, I never would have been able to afford a higher education. But even with them, I racked up over $100,000 in student loans, which I only finished paying off a couple years ago.
My story is not unique. Over 70 percent of new graduates last year had student loan debt. Making this worse is the fact that our economy is failing to provide these graduates with enough middle and higher-income job opportunities.
According to reports this week, soon the U.S. Senate will consider ways to help students obtain higher education without crushing them with loan debt. My hope is that, unlike most things in Washington these days, it won’t be another political show – with the Democrats in power offering a take-it-or-leave it proposition that inevitably requires more government spending. I and others have some ideas that can make a real difference for students, and I hope we’ll get a chance to consider those too.
Part of dealing with the current situation begins with recognizing how much things have changed since I and other policy makers graduated. For example, information technology, automation and globalization have dramatically changed the workplace, eliminating many labor-intensive jobs and replacing them new higher-skilled positions.
These jobs, unfortunately, are not readily available to just anyone. As many have found, finding a good job means you need a good education. And as many recent graduates have found, getting an education isn’t always enough – it has to be the right degree at the right price from the right institution in order to pay off.
Today, our higher education system is too expensive and too inflexible, forcing many Americans to choose between spending four-years on a campus or receiving no higher education at all. And many online programs offered by traditional institutions come with the same high tuition rates as degrees earned on campus, so Americans who wish to earn a degree from home are still restricted. And too many alternative methods of learning a trade remain unaccredited and unrecognized as viable education options.
This year, I’ve proposed several reforms to fix each of these shortcomings. I proposed ways to open additional pathways to earning a degree or vocational certification, as well as ways to increase employment opportunities for those with non-traditional educations. I’ve introduced an alternative to traditional student loans that would make it easier for private investors to finance students’ educations with the promise of paying back a share of their future earnings. I introduced reforms specifically aimed at helping the single parents and others who do not have the time or resources to spend four years on a traditional college campus.
But in order to expand access to higher education, we also need to help young students succeed on the front end of their education journey. We need to make it abundantly clear to all children that a high school diploma is an important step toward financial success, but that it is no longer sufficient on its own. We also to encourage student access to the many innovative ways that exist to help them pursue post-secondary education.
Across our communities, there are flourishing examples everywhere of schools, non-profits and charities coming together to make a difference in the lives of young people. Recently, I visited Booker T. Washington Senior High in Miami’s Overtown area, and saw examples of how students are being empowered with community support. The school has an infusion of City Year members – a trained team of young people serving full time for a year as tutors, mentors, and role models.
When my wife Jeanette and I arrived at the school, we could feel the tremendous energy of these mentors. They serve as coaches who support students’ academic goals, collaborate with teachers and administrators, and provide research-based interventions to at-risk students. The results are compelling, showing that a majority of students served by these City Year mentors see a spike in their reading and math scores. And by getting these students on the right track early on in their education careers, we increase their chances of success and not having to play catch-up later. We need to make more people aware of these types of successes, and we need to encourage more charitable giving and participation to these efforts.
There are other local examples of programs in place to help high school students learn skills that lead directly to good-paying work after graduation. For instance, in South Florida, the local school district has partnered with a car dealership to create an innovative approach to career education.
The students in this program attend traditional high school classes each morning, then go to auto dealerships where they are trained to be certified technicians. When they finish high school, they graduate not just with a high school diploma but also with a job-ready industry certification from an automobile manufacturer.
Communities all across America would benefit from programs and partnerships like these. By combining these sorts of community-based initiatives with a reformed and modernized higher education system, a century of extraordinary opportunity can be opened to our people.
The time to act is now. With the changes our economy has undergone, more Americans are experiencing extraordinary economic insecurity. Now more than ever, our people need skills, knowledge and credentials to capitalize on their potential – and on the potential of this new era. When the issue is considered again in Congress, I hope this important issue that impacts so many of our young people won’t fall prey to politics as usual in Washington.