Transcript: Rubio on Education and the American Dream

The still-fresh memory of owing $100,000 in school loans leads the Republican senator, in remarks at a National Journal event, to propose ways to improve access to affordable education in jobs America needs.

National Journal
Marco Rubio
Feb. 10, 2014, 12:40 p.m.

Sen. Marco Ru­bio, R-Fla., de­livered key­note re­marks Feb. 10 at The Next Amer­ica event, “Mak­ing Com­munity Col­leges Work.” His pre­pared re­marks ap­pear be­low.

The Amer­ic­an Dream is a term that is of­ten used but also of­ten mis­un­der­stood. It isn’t really about be­com­ing rich or fam­ous. It is about things much sim­pler and more fun­da­ment­al than that. It’s a happy home and the abil­ity to live without fear for your safety and that of your fam­ily. It’s the free­dom to wor­ship the way you want. It’s the chance to get a good edu­ca­tion and a job that al­lows you to achieve fin­an­cial se­cur­ity and re­tire com­fort­ably. And it’s about leav­ing your chil­dren bet­ter off than your­self.

The Amer­ica my par­ents came to al­most 60 years ago was one where you could find a middle in­come job even if you didn’t have a high­er edu­ca­tion. That is how they made it to the middle class, work­ing as a bar­tender and a maid. But they des­per­ately wanted their chil­dren to have even more than that. Giv­ing us the chance at a bet­ter life was their Amer­ic­an Dream.

For them, it meant giv­ing us the chance to have what they didn’t: a col­lege de­gree. That is why from a very early age, they would tell me tu tienes que estu­di­ar: “You have to study.” And so grow­ing up I nev­er con­sidered not go­ing to col­lege.

My par­ents did not make enough to save for our edu­ca­tion. But I was able to use Pell grants, stu­dent loans, work study and sum­mer jobs to pay for a four-year de­gree and even­tu­ally law school.

The loans I took out for my un­der­gradu­ate de­gree were man­age­able. But my leg­al edu­ca­tion was more ex­pens­ive and I paid for it al­most en­tirely through pub­lic and private loans. Each semester I would sign the promis­sory note bor­row­ing more money. I nev­er sat down to cal­cu­late how much I could ex­pect to make once I gradu­ated and wheth­er it would be enough to af­ford my loan pay­ments. There was no source to provide me with that in­form­a­tion either.

Fi­nally, in 1996 I gradu­ated from law school. I had a Jur­is Doc­tor in one hand and over $100,000 in loans in the oth­er. Then a few months later, the bills began to ar­rive.

My first job paid well for a young at­tor­ney. I was mak­ing over $50,000, which was more than either of my par­ents had ever made. I thought I was rich. But I was liv­ing with my par­ents and pay­ing them rent. I was try­ing to save for my wed­ding and hope­fully to buy a house. And when the $1500 monthly bills for my loans star­ted com­ing in, I real­ized I couldn’t pay them.

So I did de­fer­ment. And for­bear­ance. I paid only in­terest for a while. But the loans quickly be­came my single largest ex­pense. I re­mem­ber look­ing at the coupon book for one of them and real­iz­ing that at the pace I was pay­ing these things, I wouldn’t pay them off un­til I was over 50.

In the time since I took my last ex­am — and cer­tainly in the years since my par­ents ar­rived in Amer­ica — our coun­try has changed tre­mend­ously. Our eco­nomy has un­der­gone the most rap­id and dis­rupt­ive struc­tur­al trans­form­a­tion since the in­dus­tri­al re­volu­tion. Be­fore that eco­nom­ic re­volu­tion your abil­ity to make a liv­ing de­pended greatly on your abil­ity to do the phys­ic­al labor re­quired by farm work. But with in­dus­tri­al­iz­a­tion, you could sud­denly make a liv­ing op­er­at­ing a ma­chine our build­ing things with your hands.

This cre­ated jobs and op­por­tun­it­ies for people once trapped in the poverty of their birth. It pulled mil­lions in­to the great Amer­ic­an middle class and trans­formed this in­to a na­tion of ex­cep­tion­al up­ward mo­bil­ity.

But now we have entered a post-in­dus­tri­al era. The middle class work­ers who once earned their liv­ing mak­ing things saw their jobs leave to places with cheap­er labor and few­er re­stric­tions. And many middle class ca­reers have been re­placed by auto­ma­tion and tech­no­logy.

This new era comes not just with chal­lenges, but also with great op­por­tun­ity. It cre­ates new jobs and new ca­reers that can ac­tu­ally pay more than the ones they are re­pla­cing. But the high­er pay­ing jobs of this new era re­quire ad­vanced skills and edu­ca­tion.

Those with the right ad­vanced edu­ca­tion are mak­ing more than ever. But those that do not are fall­ing farther and farther be­hind. The res­ult is a grow­ing op­por­tun­ity gap between haves and have-nots, those who have ad­vanced edu­ca­tion and those who do not. And if we do not re­verse that trend, we will lose the up­ward mo­bil­ity that made Amer­ica ex­cep­tion­al.

In the last cen­tury, edu­ca­tion be­came a vi­able op­tion for mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans like me. But in this new cen­tury, the right edu­ca­tion is no longer just an­op­tion, it has be­come a ne­ces­sity for nearly every­one.

The prob­lem is that we are try­ing to pre­pare people for the new eco­nomy us­ing a high­er edu­ca­tion sys­tem built for the old eco­nomy. As a res­ult, many high-skilled, high-pay­ing in­dus­tries suf­fer from a short­age of labor, while too many low-pay­ing in­dus­tries suf­fer from a sur­plus. In the com­ing dec­ade, 63 per­cent of jobs will re­quire post­sec­ond­ary train­ing. (Cita­tion). But if cur­rent edu­ca­tion trends con­tin­ue, we will fall short of filling these skilled po­s­i­tions by 300,000 people per year.

Our single most im­port­ant do­mest­ic pri­or­ity should be to put in place policies that foster dy­nam­ic eco­nom­ic growth. Policies that make this coun­try the easi­est and best place in the world to in­nov­ate and cre­ate jobs. But ul­ti­mately, these jobs will not be cre­ated here if our people do not have the skills and the train­ing they re­quire.

So among the most press­ing chal­lenges be­fore us today is to trans­ition to a new mod­el of de­liv­er­ing high­er edu­ca­tion that equips Amer­ic­ans for the bet­ter pay­ing ca­reers of this new eco­nomy.

One of the cent­ral prob­lems of our out­dated high­er edu­ca­tion sys­tem is that it has be­come in­creas­ingly un­af­ford­able for those who stand to be­ne­fit the most. Tu­ition rates have skyrock­eted at a rate far ex­ceed­ing the rise in in­fla­tion. Even when the Great Re­ces­sion took hold five years ago and Amer­ic­ans had less to spend, the rise in tu­ition only con­tin­ued to ac­cel­er­ate. Between 2006 and 2012, the cost of col­lege in­creased by 16.5 per­cent. (Cita­tion).

This has forced a grow­ing num­ber of stu­dents from low and middle in­come fam­il­ies to choose between tak­ing on large amounts of stu­dent loan debt or giv­ing up on their dreams of an ad­vanced edu­ca­tion.

Today, col­lege gradu­ates in Amer­ica have more than $1 tril­lion in com­bined stu­dent loans. (Cita­tion). And keep in mind this is bor­rowed at in­terest rates far above home-mort­gage rates. This un­af­ford­able debt is more than just a num­ber on a piece of pa­per. It has a real life im­pact that af­fects our eco­nomy from top to bot­tom. It delays the abil­ity of young Amer­ic­ans to get mar­ried, buy a home and start a fam­ily. It keeps them from sav­ing for a rainy day or in­vest­ing for re­tire­ment.

One of the main reas­ons tu­ition rates are rising is that col­leges know the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment will con­tin­ue lend­ing stu­dents as much as they need in fed­er­ally guar­an­teed loans. These hiked tu­ition rates ef­fect­ively form a free sub­sidy for col­leges and uni­versit­ies, which use the funds to fin­ance a myri­ad of non-aca­dem­ic pur­suits ran­ging from din­ing op­tions to con­struc­tion pro­jects to ath­let­ics. Many schools use this money to fin­ance vari­ous ad­min­is­trat­ive po­s­i­tions that have little, if any­thing, to do with edu­cat­ing stu­dents. In fact, these non-in­struc­tion­al po­s­i­tions were be­hind a 28% ex­pan­sion of the high­er edu­ca­tion work­force from 2000 to 2012. (Cita­tion).

When I was in the state House, the uni­versit­ies told us every year that they needed high­er tu­ition to re­tain qual­ity fac­ulty and pur­sue goals that they called vi­tal to stu­dent learn­ing. I un­der­stand this ar­gu­ment. It’s im­port­ant to en­sure stu­dents re­ceive a qual­ity edu­ca­tion for their tu­ition dol­lars. But there also has to come a point where qual­ity and af­ford­ab­il­ity meet. We simply can­not con­tin­ue to price people out of high­er edu­ca­tion.

Mak­ing these rising costs even more bur­den­some is a fed­er­al gov­ern­ment that seems to try its best to be con­fus­ing and bur­eau­crat­ic. Even the pro­cess of ap­ply­ing for fed­er­al fin­an­cial aid is made un­ne­ces­sar­ily dif­fi­cult. We should ex­am­ine ways to cut back on the com­plex­ity of the fed­er­al aid ap­plic­a­tion to en­sure stu­dents are not dis­cour­aged by the pro­cess and are able to com­plete it quickly and ac­cur­ately.

The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment also uses a tangled and bur­eau­crat­ic sys­tem of tax policies. What stu­dents and par­ents need from our tax code is simple, so let’s stop pre­tend­ing it’s so com­plic­ated. They need their edu­ca­tion­al ex­penses to be tax de­duct­ible. That’s why Rep­res­ent­at­ive Schock and I have pro­posed a bill to up­date and con­sol­id­ate high­er edu­ca­tion tax in­cent­ives in­to one simple, easy-to-un­der­stand tax cred­it. Our bill would help mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans pur­sue high­er edu­ca­tion, sim­pli­fy the tax code and save tax­pay­ers money.

Our col­leges and uni­versit­ies must do their part by mak­ing it among their highest pri­or­it­ies to find the right bal­ance between qual­ity and cost. And sim­pli­fy­ing the tax be­ne­fits of high­er edu­ca­tion will help stu­dents deal with the cost of high­er edu­ca­tion as well. But this alone is not enough.

Today, I am grate­ful for this op­por­tun­ity to of­fer three ad­di­tion­al ideas aimed at help­ing Amer­ic­ans earn a prac­tic­al ad­vanced edu­ca­tion at an af­ford­able price and in a reas­on­able time­frame.

First, we must re­cog­nize that it is no longer enough to merely get a de­gree. If you want to im­prove your chances of find­ing a good pay­ing job, it is vi­tal that you get the right de­gree geared to­ward the right in­dustry.

Not all col­lege ma­jors have the same suc­cess rate when it comes to con­nect­ing stu­dents with good jobs. Na­tion­ally, ma­jors such as busi­ness, lib­er­al arts, and hos­pit­al­ity have un­der­em­ploy­ment rates at or above 50 per­cent. There are simply more gradu­ates than jobs in these in­dus­tries. Mean­while, en­gin­eer­ing, health ser­vices and edu­ca­tion all have un­der­em­ploy­ment rates less than 25 per­cent. (Cita­tion)

Stu­dents and their fam­il­ies need to be equipped with the in­form­a­tion ne­ces­sary to make well-in­formed de­cisions about which ma­jors at which in­sti­tu­tions are likely to yield the best re­turn on in­vest­ment. This is why I, along with Sen­at­or Ron Wyden, pro­posed the “Stu­dent Right to Know Be­fore You Go Act,” which aims to give stu­dents re­li­able data on how much they can ex­pect to make versus how much they can ex­pect to owe.

Second, we must make the bur­den of stu­dent loans more man­age­able. To do so, I pro­pose that we make an “In­come-Based Re­pay­ment Sys­tem” the auto­mat­ic re­pay­ment meth­od for stu­dent loans. Un­der this sys­tem, gradu­ates would make loan pay­ments in pro­por­tion to how much they earn. So the more you make in a giv­en month, the more you would pay back. The less you make, the less your monthly pay­ment will be.

We have vari­ous In­come-Based Re­pay­ment pro­grams already in place, but they are ter­ribly in­suf­fi­cient and re­plete with un­in­ten­ded con­sequences. Many gradu­ates don’t even know the pro­grams ex­ist, mak­ing them ex­tremely un­der­u­til­ized. And per­haps it’s no great sur­prise that those who do at­tempt to use them of­ten get tangled in a slow and frus­trat­ing fed­er­al bur­eau­cracy. Mak­ing in­come-based re­pay­ment the uni­ver­sal re­pay­ment meth­od would end this con­fu­sion.

And fi­nally, we must cre­ate al­tern­at­ives to our cur­rent sys­tem of ac­cess­ing and pay­ing for high­er edu­ca­tion. And there are sev­er­al things we can do to foster more choice and more in­nov­a­tion.

For ex­ample, what if in ad­di­tion to tra­di­tion­al loans, we could give stu­dents the op­tion of pay­ing for their edu­ca­tion without ac­quir­ing any stu­dent loans at all?

Let’s say you are a stu­dent who needs $10,000 to pay for your last year of school. In­stead of tak­ing this money out in the form of a loan, you could ap­ply for a “Stu­dent In­vest­ment Plan” from an ap­proved and cer­ti­fied private in­vest­ment group. In short, these in­vestors would pay your $10,000 tu­ition in re­turn for a per­cent­age of your in­come for a set peri­od of time after gradu­ation ““ let’s say, for ex­ample, 4 per­cent a year for 10 years.

This group would look at factors such as your ma­jor, the in­sti­tu­tion you’re at­tend­ing, your re­cord in school ““ and use this to make a de­term­in­a­tion about the like­li­hood of you find­ing a good job and pay­ing them back.

Un­like with loans, you would be un­der no leg­al ob­lig­a­tion to pay back that en­tire $10,000. Your only ob­lig­a­tion would be to pay that 4 per­cent of your in­come per year for 10 years, re­gard­less of wheth­er that ends up amount­ing to more or less than $10,000.

We also need policies that re­cog­nize that many Amer­ic­ans don’t have the money, time or in­clin­a­tion to spend four to six years on a cam­pus. Maybe you are a single par­ent who needs to work full time to raise your chil­dren, so you can­not just drop everything to go back to school. Or maybe you are a high school stu­dent who wants to fix air­plane en­gines as a ca­reer, but you lose in­terest in your school­work be­cause it seems geared only to­ward col­lege bound stu­dents.

For mil­lions of Amer­ic­ans trapped in low-pay­ing jobs or at risk of drop­ping out of school, high­er edu­ca­tion may be the only way they will ever be able to move to a bet­ter pay­ing job. What they need is more af­ford­able de­grees or ca­reer edu­ca­tion op­tions that are tailored to their spe­cif­ic needs and tal­ents.

We should make ca­reer and vo­ca­tion­al edu­ca­tion more wide­spread and more ac­cess­ible. For in­stance, here in Miami, 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 with a job-ready in­dustry cer­ti­fic­a­tion from an auto­mobile man­u­fac­turer.

An­oth­er ex­ample of this is ap­pren­tice­ship pro­grams, which provide valu­able on-the-job train­ing for em­ploy­ees. So in­stead of hav­ing to pay for school­ing, an em­ploy­ee can of­ten get paid to learn and work to­ward a de­gree while on the job. We need policies that en­cour­age in­dus­tries to ex­pand ap­pren­tice­ship pro­grams and work more closely with their loc­al work-force train­ing boards to make these vi­able op­tions for gain­ing cer­ti­fic­a­tion or de­gree cred­it.

We should also cre­ate more path­ways for work­ing par­ents to at­tain the equi­val­ent of a col­lege de­gree at the more eas­ily ac­cess­ible state col­lege level. Our host today, Miami Dade Col­lege, is a pi­on­eer in this ef­fort.

Let’s fully util­ize in­nov­a­tion and tech­no­logy to make learn­ing easi­er to ac­cess. To their cred­it, many tra­di­tion­al col­leges and uni­versit­ies now of­fer on­line edu­ca­tion­al op­por­tun­it­ies. Some of the best are right here in Flor­ida. My alma ma­ter, UF, has two on­line courses ranked in the top 5 na­tion­ally. Embry-Riddle Aero­naut­ic­al Uni­versity in Daytona Beach also has one in the top 5. (Cita­tion)

These uni­versity-offered on­line courses are a wel­comed al­tern­at­ive for many stu­dents, but un­for­tu­nately the cost of these courses is of­ten com­par­able to at­tend­ing phys­ic­al classes. With all of the re­sources of the web, most of which are com­pletely free, shouldn’t there be an­oth­er al­tern­at­ive?

The spread of know­ledge through the In­ter­net is one of the greatest tech­no­lo­gic­al break­throughs of our time. So why hasn’t our edu­ca­tion sys­tem found a way to har­ness it and al­low it to count to­ward a per­son’s post-sec­ond­ary edu­ca­tion?

The an­swer is that we have a broken ac­cred­it­a­tion sys­tem that fa­vors es­tab­lished in­sti­tu­tions while block­ing out new, in­nov­at­ive and more af­ford­able com­pet­it­ors.

In or­der for a col­lege or uni­versity to be re­cog­nized as a de­gree-con­fer­ring in­sti­tu­tion, it has to be ap­proved — or “ac­cred­ited” — by an in­de­pend­ent reg­u­lat­ory board. The prob­lem is, these reg­u­lat­ory boards are con­trolled in large part by the in­sti­tu­tions that have already been ac­cred­ited, which are typ­ic­ally the tra­di­tion­al four-year col­leges and uni­versit­ies. This means their ac­cred­it­a­tion status is rarely ques­tioned, while the status of po­ten­tial com­pet­it­ors — such as free on­line course-pro­viders — is rarely giv­en ample con­sid­er­a­tion.

Re­form­ing this biased and broken sys­tem is cru­cial to open­ing broad, in­nov­at­ive path­ways to high­er edu­ca­tion for all Amer­ic­ans. There are already some unique and power­ful pro­pos­als for re­form out there today. Sen­at­or Mike Lee, for ex­ample, has pro­posed al­low­ing states to take con­trol of the ac­cred­it­a­tion pro­cess. Mem­bers of both parties are be­gin­ning to real­ize that for every day we delay bold ac­cred­it­a­tion re­form, our edu­ca­tion sys­tem leaves more Amer­ic­ans be­hind to lan­guish in a dwind­ling mar­ket of low-skill jobs.

Ac­tion on this is­sue can and should be swift. Free on­line learn­ing is already a real­ity, we just need the es­tab­lished sys­tem to catch up. Here’s how it could work. After com­plet­ing a free on­line course, a stu­dent could pay a re­l­at­ively small fee to take a stand­ard­ized test that, if passed, would al­low them to count the class to­ward a de­gree or job cer­ti­fic­a­tion.

This is the same concept we use to al­low stu­dents to count AP classes in high school to­ward col­lege cred­it. By al­low­ing real-world ex­per­i­ences to count in the same way, we could cre­ate what would vir­tu­ally amount to a debt-free de­gree.

To make this a real­ity, Con­gress could es­tab­lish a new in­de­pend­ent ac­cred­it­ing board to en­sure the qual­ity of these free courses and make the cred­its trans­fer­able in­to the tra­di­tion­al sys­tem. The board would factor in in­put from the private sec­tor and would al­low stu­dents to qual­i­fy for some type of fed­er­al aid to cov­er any po­ten­tial costs.

In ad­di­tion to these on­line courses, there are a nearly in­fin­ite num­ber of ways for an in­di­vidu­al to learn and mas­ter a trade, and it’s im­possible to ac­cred­it them all.

For ex­ample, an as­pir­ing cook may have mastered their craft from books and free on­line tu­tori­als, or per­haps from the train­ing of a par­ent who is a cer­ti­fied chef — or who simply cooks up a mean ropa vieja after years of pre­par­ing it for their fam­ily. Be­cause we all know that if most of our par­ents or grand­par­ents wanted to go work as a res­taur­ant chef, they wouldn’t need to take a class to prove they can cook. These people should have the op­por­tun­ity to prove their abil­it­ies and gain the cer­ti­fic­a­tion ne­ces­sary for em­ploy­ment without spend­ing tens of thou­sands at a form­al culin­ary school.

We could jump­start and cre­ate private sec­tor con­fid­ence in this prac­tice by cre­at­ing a pi­lot pro­gram to hire such work­ers in fed­er­al agen­cies. The agen­cies would identi­fy oc­cu­pa­tions where em­ploy­ees could have learned skills from non-tra­di­tion­al sources. The pi­lot pro­gram would then sys­tem­at­ize the hir­ing of these in­di­vidu­als over a five-year peri­od, al­low­ing the res­ults to be tracked and re­por­ted back to form the basis for fu­ture policy.

I sus­pect that we will find that in many fields, the source of an em­ploy­ee’s edu­ca­tion is far less im­port­ant than many pre­vi­ously thought. That those who have the skills and the aptitude to be suc­cess­ful in a job de­serve the op­por­tun­ity to be con­sidered for em­ploy­ment, even if they learned the trade from a non-tra­di­tion­al source.

In clos­ing, I feel the policies I’ve out­lined here — and that we’ll con­tin­ue to dis­cuss in a mo­ment — are not just about edu­ca­tion. They are about our shared and uni­fy­ing be­lief that no one should be held cap­tive by the cir­cum­stances of their birth. They are about the equal­ity of op­por­tun­ity that trans­formed a young and di­verse na­tion in­to the freest and most pros­per­ous na­tion in all of hu­man his­tory.

En­act­ing these and oth­er in­nov­at­ive policies to re­form high­er edu­ca­tion should be among our most ur­gent pri­or­it­ies. Be­cause what is at stake is our very iden­tity as an ex­cep­tion­al na­tion.

This new post-in­dus­tri­al eco­nomy of­fers great prom­ise, but it has also cre­ated wide­spread eco­nom­ic in­sec­ur­ity. Mil­lions live one broken-down car, one de­struct­ive storm, one ser­i­ous ill­ness away from fin­an­cial col­lapse. People who worked their whole lives in one in­dustry have watched their jobs dis­ap­pear. Par­ents are heart­broken know­ing their chil­dren did everything they were told they need to do to suc­ceed, but now can’t find a job in the field they stud­ied for.

The Great Re­ces­sion brought about much of this in­sec­ur­ity. But in some ways it only sped up changes that were already hap­pen­ing. And it’s left so many feel­ing as if a bet­ter to­mor­row is in­creas­ingly out of reach for people like them.

Like the eco­nom­ic trans­form­a­tions of the past, the one we are now wit­ness­ing is scary and dis­rupt­ive. But just like the in­dus­tri­al re­volu­tion at the turn of the last cen­tury, this new era of­fers the real op­por­tun­ity to build the great Amer­ic­an middle class. Through trade, tech­no­logy, sci­entif­ic in­nov­a­tion and 21st cen­tury man­u­fac­tur­ing, we can cre­ate fields and in­dus­tries that nev­er ex­is­ted be­fore, and ca­reers and jobs that pay more than the jobs they re­placed.

This is the op­por­tun­ity of our time, and no people on earth are bet­ter po­si­tioned to seize it. If we can just bring high­er edu­ca­tion with­in reach of more of our people, the 21st cen­tury — like the one be­fore it — will be an Amer­ic­an cen­tury.