Marco Rubio: Higher-Ed Makeover Would Improve Upward Mobility

The senator talks about how to help more people get college degrees, student-loan forgiveness, and more.

Sen. Marco Rubio speaks at a National Journal Next America event in Miami Fla. 
Ronald Brownstein
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Ronald Brownstein
March 11, 2014, 1 a.m.

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 Czekalinsk contributed to this article.
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