In February, Sen. Marco Rubio proposed a series of higher-education reforms designed to expand access and restrain costs. His market-oriented proposals included a plan to allow private investors to pay students' tuition in return for a share of their future income, and an alternative accreditation process intended to nurture more competitors to traditional two- and four-year institutions. The Florida Republican spoke about his ideas with Atlantic Media Editorial Director Ronald Brownstein and Mariana Atencio, an anchor at the Fusion network, at a National Journal Next America event in Miami. Edited excerpts follow.
You have talked about how the ideas of upward mobility and access to education are interwoven in American history. And yet studies show young people are less likely to obtain more education than their parents here than in any other major industrialized country. What will it take to reverse that?
What makes us exceptional is not the size of our economy or our military; it is that we've always prided ourselves as a people where you're not trapped in the circumstances of your birth. And there are now other countries that, statistically speaking, provide more upward mobility than America does.
One of the reasons that's happening is because, in the 21st century, the jobs that people used to use to get to the middle class increasingly are difficult to find if you don't have some sort of advanced education. The problem we have is that right now for many students, the only advanced education available to them is the traditional four-year college route. That can't be the only model.
You focus on using market forces to create new options for students. The for-profit model in higher education has produced mixed results at best. How would you maintain quality and ensure that students are being served if you're bringing in a lot of new players?
I don't think you start right away by saying, "Here's the flow of federal dollars that will go to you." You need to gain confidence that this alternative method of learning is real and not simply a way to churn more student loans and grants out of people's pockets. You would need to create pilot programs, measure their responses, learn from them, and, from that, create the confidence before you made federal dollars available.
But what frustrates me is that [alternative] learning is already out there. You can already take an economics course from MIT or Harvard or Stanford online. But you can't get credit for it toward a certifiable degree unless you're enrolled in a degree program at a college that will package it for you. What I'm saying is that people should be allowed to learn through internships and work study and online courses and classroom courses and life and work experience—to be able to package all of that together into the equivalent of a degree. So that's what we're going to try to create a system for.
Would you allow student-loan consumers to be protected by bankruptcy?
I think we have to examine that, but we should be careful about it too, only because I think that can make it harder for others to access loans in the future if the lending becomes uncollectible. I think a better approach is to allow people to pay back based on how much money they make, because that will incentivize people to continue paying the loans rather than to go into default, which will damage their credit.
Also, I think more students and parents, when they're applying for a loan, deserve to know how much people who graduate from this school with your degree make, so you can decide if it's worth it to take out a $100,000 loan for that degree.
Would you ever go as far as to consider student-loan forgiveness?
We have that now in some targeted and specialized fields, and that's a concept that should be perhaps expanded in some unique circumstances. I would be wary about saying you're going to forgive massive numbers of student loans because I think that would make future student-loan lending much more difficult.
You spearheaded immigration reform. Are you frustrated with your own party?
When we did this [in the Senate] last year, the biggest question I would get from people is, "We understand that we have to do something; we think they'll do the legalization, but they'll never do the enforcement." That's only gotten more pronounced in the last year. That's a real hurdle, and it keeps people in Congress from supporting a change in the law.
Stephanie Czekalinski contributed to this article.
This article appears in the March 8, 2014 edition of National Journal Magazine as A Problem of Degrees.