On April 21, 2020, the Buckley Program hosted a Firing Line debate between David Bergeron and Inez Stepman on the topic “Forgiving Student Debt and Making College Free.” Inez Stepman is a senior policy analyst at the Independent Women’s Forum. She has worked in education policy for seven years, and prior to joining the Independent Women’s Forum, she was the director of education and workforce development at the American Legislative Exchange Council. David Bergeron is a senior for Postsecondary Education at the Center for American Progress. He previously served as the acting assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education. The transcript of this interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Billy Kline: Thank you for speaking at the Firing Line Debate and for sharing your perspective—I really enjoyed the discussion. I’d like to start very broadly here: what role do you believe colleges and universities play, or should play, in our society?
Inez Stepman: That is a really, really good question, and I think the ideal is so far away from where we are now that it’s an important thing to discuss, because I think it just highlights the failures of our higher education system. I absolutely believe in liberal education – in classic liberal education – I think it’s especially necessary in a constitutional republic. If you just look at the canon of Western thought, what the Founders used in founding this country, I think it’s obvious that what we today call higher education plays an important role in a constitutional republic. Yesterday, I talked a lot about job numbers and post-graduate career prospects versus debt, but I’m not at all in the camp that the only thing universities should be offering students is a pathway to a career. I’m a philosophy major, and I think that kind of learning is worthwhile. But even that kind of learning suffers enormously when the cost of college is so, so out of whack with the economic value of a degree. It puts it more out of reach for folks who might not be able to afford that classic liberal education.
On the flip side, there are so few universities actually offering, even as electives, that kind of old-style, classic liberal education at all. There’s some really interesting data out there from a group called ACTA [the American Council of Trustees and Alumni], that looks at what the required coursework is at various universities, and only a small percentage of universities require anything close to what we call the “Western canon” anymore. You’re lucky if you can find it as electives. I myself tried to cobble together that kind of curriculum at my university, but I had to do it myself – it wasn’t part of the usual requirements of the university. And then, of course – what I did cite yesterday – are some of the numbers of college grads, literacy rates for example. Not “can you read at all?” but “can you read a simple newspaper article and then come back with the main idea that it communicates?” It doesn’t look good when only a third of university graduates can complete such a simple task. So it just goes to show that the numerous universities in America – we have so many more than other nations – are not really creating human capital: they’re not creating extra economic capital for people, and they’re not really creating that more ephemeral human capital. That higher purpose of learning – they’re not really accomplishing that goal, either, and it seems to me if they’re not providing a good track into the middle class – into a successful career – and they’re not providing the kind of higher learning that they used to provide, then their claims on the public are a lot weaker than they would have been, say, 50 years ago.
BK: Thank you – I’d like to shift to something else you noted yesterday, which is that some countries with free college artificially impose enrollment caps by creating tougher admissions requirements. How does this solution differ from your view that colleges shouldn’t accept underprepared students who may incur debt while failing to complete their degree programs?
IS: I don’t think there’s a magical number of people who are prepared, academically, for college. Of course, we could have a whole conversation about the K-12 system and how it’s not preparing a large number of students for that kind of work. But the problem on both counts is the artificial imposition. If we were to leave this to the free market, like we leave so many other things in our society, we would be able to find that balance of how many people are academically prepared for college, and how much value a degree would bring. But unfortunately, once you start to centralize these decisions, once the government starts to interfere with them, you have to find an artificial way to guess at that number. In this country, we’ve basically said that anyone who graduates high school gets a blank check. Of course, you have to pay it back later, which is part of the problem, but here’s your blank check: you can go to any university that will have you. That’s our artificial imposition into that market. On the flipside, you have the free college imposition, where at some point, with skyrocketing costs, they have to just say no, just like, for example, in Medicaid and Medicare programs. They have to cap reimbursements, and so oftentimes, then, the system has to find an artificial way to cut off students, even though some of those students could benefit from a degree. Either those universities become incredibly selective and going to college at all becomes more like applying to the very selective tier of schools here in the United States, or you just straight-up cap the money and then universities can’t expand even though their students would be academically qualified. At some point, you have to draw that line, and I’d rather have the market draw that line, in a more flexible way than either one of those solutions that are essentially government bureaucrats guessing at what the level of prepared people – who are actually going to benefit from a college degree – is.
BK: During the debate, you referenced what you call the “credentialing treadmill,” in which the increased presence of degree holders in the workforce has caused many jobs, for which a college degree would otherwise be unnecessary, to require a bachelor’s degree. If I’m not mistaken, you believe that reducing – or eliminating – federal student loans would end this ubiquity of bachelor’s degree requirements in the job market. How would this work in the interim, where fewer job seekers have bachelor’s degrees, but most jobs still require more than a high school diploma?
IS: It’s a really good question, and I definitely don’t have an easy answer – this is the difficulty of transitioning between systems, which is why in my limited-government paradise we would cut off all the loans tomorrow, but I don’t think that’s realistic. I don’t think you can upend the entire sector, and the entire way we’ve done business for the past few decades, overnight, and I think a more moderate solution might be to freeze student loans, instead of escalating them up with inflation. So if Congress were to freeze the amount of money that’s available as student loans, then eventually, inflation would overtake that amount, and that amount would become less and less relevant to the actual “sticker cost” of universities. And that might be a way to ease the system back in the other direction and reintroduce some limits. The problem here is that there aren’t any concrete limits on the entire university sector, because at the end of the day, the taxpayer’s holding this debt, not a bank that’s going to want its money back. A bank, before it makes a loan, is going to do all kinds of risk assessments to make sure it’s going to get its return on that investment. The federal government, when it’s politically unpopular to call in that money – they’re not going to. So functionally, unfortunately, what we’re going to see – unless we start to really change the underlying cost spiral in the system – is taxpayer forgiveness regardless, because people will go into default.
At the end of the day, it’s the taxpayers that hold that debt. And student loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, which is another discussion entirely. It’s another case where one government intervention leads to another: with all these free loans, you couldn’t have students declaring bankruptcy within the first two years out of college when they can’t pay their loans, and then walking forward in life with the college degree but with no debt over their heads – that was creating a malincentive. This is just one huge tangled mess, and I think there will be bumps in the transition, but looking into the future, it’s only going to get worse. We are going to see massive rates of default and we’re going to have to deal with the debt problem one way or another, but we’ll only make it worse if we continue to create upward pressures on tuition with these student loan programs, which is why I think the reasonable thing to do would be to just freeze them. Because if you can’t cut them – if you can’t take them away overnight – then at least freeze them and make them less and less relevant as inflation pushes the cost of everything up over time.
BK: You noted there that allowing private banks, not the federal government, to assess risk and issue loans, would ensure that most borrowers are on track to graduate and become gainfully employed upon graduation. Could this potentially cause unintended consequences, such as cosigning requirements, that would make it harder for certain students to take out loans?
IS: It would make it harder for certain students to take out loans, there’s no doubt. I’m not a politician, I can say these things: we have a lot of people going to college who are not substantially benefitting from it when the benefit of that college degree is juxtaposed against the loans they have to pay back. And it’s unpopular because a bank is not going to look kindly on not only these liberal arts degrees, in general, but especially some of these proliferating studies departments. It’s really hard to imagine a Wells Fargo or a Bank of America granting a 150-thousand-dollar loan to study critical whiteness studies, unless it’s at one of a handful of top universities. Maybe for Yale, maybe just because the value of a Yale degree overall is so high, they’ll issue the loan, but if you want to go to the 2,000th-ranked college and you want to study critical whiteness studies, there’s no way that the bank’s going to see its return on its investment, and they’re going to say no. But on the flipside, if you’re going to go to even a middle-tier college and study chemical engineering, it might be an easier sell for the bank to give you that loan. I know that the whole conversation that we’ve had for decades is how to get more people to college. Barack Obama, at one point, said he wants every American to get a college degree – I think he said it in 2009. But I don’t think that college should be an extension of the K-12 system. And if going to college becomes just another basic part of an education, then no wonder we’re having a debt problem and a cost problem. If we’re extending the basic education that one needs to succeed in life all the way through another four-year degree, after you graduate from high school, I just don’t think that’s a tenable vision for society, and I don’t think it’s even desirable. There are many people who may not be academically-inclined but are great at learning skills that are actually really needed in our economy. One of the things I didn’t get to in yesterday’s debate is: yes, we’re hearing about all these 21st-century jobs – we’re going to need people with the right education – but a lot of those jobs are not jobs that people are being prepared for in college. They’re not four-year bachelor’s degree jobs. They need special certification and special training. Sometimes in a year, sometimes in two years, sometimes through apprenticeships. They require difficult and complex skills but not necessarily the skills that are learned in a generic, four-year college degree course. I think we should be proliferating those kinds of options instead of this drumbeat that everybody needs to go get a bachelor’s, which has been more harmful than helpful.
BK: Another topic that wasn’t discussed as much yesterday, but that you mentioned here, was the current student debt situation. Mr. Bergeron called for the outright forgiveness of federally-backed student loans, calling it “intergenerational justice.” Do you believe any adjustments should be made to existing student loan debt, and how did you feel about your opponent’s “intergenerational justice” comment?
IS: I do think there’s a generational misunderstanding, and that’s why I argue sometimes with my fellow conservatives who may be a little bit older, who might’ve gone through college, or didn’t go through college, in the nineties or in the eighties, or even in the seventies. There is a fundamental disconnect between the generations because they imply that the millennials, and then you guys – I assume you’re gen Z already – that our generations are somehow lazy because we can’t work our way through college. That’s not a financially-viable solution when the average tuition at a private university is between 40 and 50 thousand dollars, and even at a public university is 20 thousand dollars. And that’s before the cost of living. You’re very quickly getting to the need for something like a 55, 60 thousand dollar a year salary to pay your bills while you’re in college, and that’s not feasible for the average 18-year-old, or the average 20-year-old. In fact that’s about the median income overall of all adults in the United States. So I think there is a generational disconnect. Now, what to do about it? I think, obviously, it’s actually deeply unfair – far from being justice – to expect people who either didn’t go to college, and are earning, on average, a lower salary – which is still the majority of Americans, who don’t have a four-year degree – and, on the flipside, people who really, really had to sacrifice for the last decade to pay off their student loans, it’s really unfair to ask them to foot the bill for those of us who are still paying back our loans. Functionally, and it’s hard to admit, but functionally we are going to have a student loan bailout, because, as I said, when people go into default, the taxpayer’s going to eat that money. But as long as people have the ability to pay, they should be paying something. And we should be focusing on this: if you’re in a hole, the first thing to do is stop digging. I’m willing to have this compromise conversation about what to do with people who are really, really struggling with student loans, and it’s preventing them from being able to move on with their lives in many ways. I’m sympathetic to that problem and I’m willing to have that conversation, but not while we’re still digging the hole. And this is kind of like the Lucy and the football thing: I don’t want to have that loan conversation until we’re done digging. And then, if I was proposed some kind of grand bargain? I mean, obviously I’m not in Congress – I’m not a politician, it’s not up to me – but if I were proposed some kind of grand bargain that gave limited student debt relief in exchange for cutting off the money going to universities, I would consider that compromise. But student loan forgiveness without actually addressing the problem is only going to make it worse, because you’re just going to set the expectation for universities that they can raise tuition as high as they want and students can take out even more money, because it’s just going to be forgiven on the back end anyways.
BK: You already kind of addressed this, but at a more practical level, do you believe the wholesale cancellation of student loans could create expectations of future debt cancellation – not necessarily just student debt but all forms of debt – and what long-run effects, if any, could this have on financial markets?
IS: Yes, if you look at the last few financial collapses – this one aside because there’s an obvious reason for this collapse that comes from outside of the economic sphere – but if you look at the last few financial collapses, they came from bad loans, or bad debt: taking on risk with the expectation that because so many people were doing it, there would have to be a solution at the back end for everybody. And so those things created collapse. If you look, for example, at the 2009 financial collapse, people knew the feds were going to back-stop their risk because we wanted as many people to be homeowners as possible. They knew that the feds were back-stopping that risk and that’s what made them make even more risky decisions in terms of loaning out money, because there was that expectation of bailouts. And even in this debate, you hear that we bailed out the banks when they took on these kinds of risks in 2009, so why can’t we bail out students? Surely students are more worthy than rich bankers, right? We hear that argument, and I would say you can just fold that argument around and say, “why not poor people with high-interest credit card debt? Isn’t the guy who had to put, let’s say, a healthcare bill on his credit card more worthy than students who are primarily coming from the upper-middle class and the upper class in terms of incomes here?” So there’s a regressive element to this, where you’re using the money of people who make a lower income to bail out people who have a higher income, and I don’t see how it’s somehow more moral to bail out, say, a wealthy student at Harvard, than it is to bail out somebody who’s just struggling with paying the expenses of life and got into credit card debt. So I do think there’s an inherent moral risk, and this is just the latest of it, since we bailed out the banks, and we bailed out, back in the seventies, New York state. These large federal bailouts, and they do create a moral hazard going forward, for more people to then demand that the taxpayer solves their problem. But the problem is that we all have to pay for this eventually. We can pretend it’s free money coming from this guy, because it’s actually money from all of us. So there has to be an end to this, and yes, I do think if we bail out student loans wholesale, you’ll see a perverse moral incentive going forward.
BK: To shift gears a bit, in the past, you’ve taken the position that federally-backed student loans serve as a subsidy to universities, many of whom fail to protect intellectual diversity and free speech. Do you see changes in loan policy as the primary vehicle to protect free speech at colleges and universities, or would you propose any additional measures?
IS: So, what you’re referring to there is there was a proposed amendment, rider, on what’s called the Higher Education Act, which is that act that I talked about yesterday, that started the federal loan interventions under LBJ, during the Great Society. We still reauthorize HEA every period of years, and there was a proposal to tie that reauthorization of student loan money to a statement that all public universities would have to show they were in compliance with their obligations under the Constitution and the First Amendment in order to be eligible for student loans. So if a student wants to go to UC Berkeley, you can’t go to UC Berkeley with your student loan money unless Berkeley shows that it’s in compliance with the First Amendment. I’m in favor of that. Though some people said that’s too micromanage-y, I’m in favor of that because those public universities already have those obligations. They have them twice – they have them under the Constitution, and there’s been decision after decision in the federal courts that things like free speech zones are unconstitutional. We win on these issues when they get into court. The problem is that there are a lot of universities that would rather take the settlement every two years and pay out some number of hundreds of thousands of dollars to a couple students than they would change those policies and risk angering what I think are a minority of students on the left that see speech as violence, or have some other absurd classifications or ways of thinking about free speech. So the problem is that winning in court hasn’t been enough to change university behavior, and I think tying their money to it will change university behavior because they’re all dependent on the student loan money. There are only a handful of schools in the U.S. that aren’t dependent entirely on this student loan money for their very business model. Hillsdale College is one, and there are a couple others that, on principle, do not take government funds. But every other college and university in the country is dependent, as its lifeblood, on these student loan funds, and I think tying the legal obligations they already have, as public universities, to uphold the First Amendment, to those loan monies, would be a good idea. And I think it’s probably much more effective than the lawsuits that groups like FIRE [the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education] bring. I love the work FIRE’s doing, don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a lot of friends over there and I love the work they’re doing – but fundamentally, because each case drags out for a couple years, there are a lot of universities that are making the calculation they’d rather settle.
BK: I’d like to conclude with what you concluded with yesterday. You noted that, recently, public trust in our nation’s universities has dropped quite significantly. Do you see this lack of trust as an issue in our society, and how do you think universities can regain the trust of the society they exist to serve?
IS: So I didn’t have time to go into it, but I find it really interesting, and if I were a university president, I would find it very alarming. So what we’ve seen, just over the past four years, is we’ve seen Pew – I think it’s Pew, but it’s either Pew or Gallup – did one of these longer-term surveys, year after year, and in the past decades, we’ve seen that people generally agree that universities are a good thing. They think they’re a net positive for the country, and they think that it’s generally a good thing to go to a university. But that is flipping among Republicans and independents. Now Democrats have stayed basically even, about two-thirds of them, I think, think that universities are a positive thing, which means that Republicans and independents have dropped over the past four years – they’ve basically gone from saying, “yeah, my local university, they’re a good thing – they bring money into the economy, they’re educating students, I hope my son or daughter goes there,” to now thinking these are bastions of whatever PC [political correctness] ideas are going to be bothering me and my family next. People are watching those crazy protests when people like Ben Shapiro come to campus. People watched the protest in Mizzou, the Black Lives Matter protest, and there was a drop in enrollment the following year. People are watching universities fail to uphold their First Amendment obligations. They’re watching the ideas coming out of universities and they think those ideas are damaging to the American society. I think that’s the only way that universities are going to reverse this trust gap – it’s by returning to their mission, and actually being marketplaces of ideas, being a place for open intellectual inquiry, and producing graduates that impress the typical American. I’m sorry, but the typical American is not impressed by your women’s studies grads, from Yale or Harvard – they no longer feel like the elite are actually elite, or that they actually have something important to offer the rest of society from that education. And I think that’s a really long-term problem, the trust gap, but universities are going to have to earn it back the hard way. Because right now, I think the assessment of average Americans is basically correct: universities have become nothing more than training camps, in a lot of cases, for far-left activism. Look, it’s a free country, they’re free to do that, but it becomes really, really hard to explain, then, why the mechanic in Iowa should be paying for that whole system if they’re going to be nothing more than that.
BK: Thank you so much for this interview, I know you’ve been very busy this week, and I appreciate you taking the time to share your perspective. I wish you the best, and I hope to be able to hear your perspective on more issues in the future!
IS: Thank you so much for having me. It was really an honor to participate in the Buckley Program, and some day I hope to come to your campus in person. I was really looking forward to the trip up there, but perhaps I can come sometime in the future, when we can all resume our normal lives!
Kevin Xiao: Mr. Bergeron, thank you so much for your time and agreeing to do an interview with the Buckley Beacon. It’s an honor to be hearing from you in a couple hours, and I wanted to first start by asking you about your thoughts on the current crisis and how COVID-19 is affecting the landscape of higher education. I remember that, in the last recession, many students and professionals went back to graduate school. I was wondering whether you think something similar will happen in this current crisis. Or, do you think the COVID-19 crisis will affect the higher education landscape differently from in 2008?
David Bergeron: It’s very, very hard to tell at the moment what the impact will be. It doesn’t seem like the solutions that worked in the past are going to work in the future. I think that we are going to see a desire for people to go back and say, well, what happened after the 2008-2009 recession. For me, this feels more analogous to the economic shocks, either after 9/11 or after Katrina and New Orleans, where in the case of New Orleans, you saw higher education enrollments basically go to zero, and then have to rebuild over a decade. And they didn’t rebuild at the graduate level. They rebuilt at the undergraduate level. We saw an emphasis on building a strong relationship between the institutions of higher education in the community and what the community needed for rebuilding. In the context of COVID, what more likely we will see is an emphasis on things like public health, where we will see more people going back and getting undergraduate degrees or certificates to allow them to become a practitioner in public health. Maybe physician’s assistants, maybe there’ll be a move towards master’s degrees or higher in public health, but the demand is going to be so strong initially for those kinds of credentials that people will be looking for quicker turnaround solutions than advanced degrees. That’s just my sense at the moment, and like everybody, I may be totally wrong.
KX: Just building off what you just talked about, I know you have some expertise at the Education Department’s OPE (Office of Postsecondary Education). And I wanted to ask you about some of the international programs that are run out of the department. I don’t know if that is your area of expertise, but I was wondering how you thought in the current climate with lockdowns coming from the current administration and across the world. How do you think that would affect students who are coming from abroad, international talent, and also domestic students who are looking to study abroad? Do you think that the current COVID crisis will affect that in any way for the foreseeable future?
DB: Oh, it’s going to have a dramatic impact on the flows both ways. Certainly, this administration has been very opposed to people coming from other countries outside the United States. This is yet another reason to stand in the way of international students coming to our institutions. What that fails to recognize is the value of the experience of students from U.S., studying shoulder to shoulder with students from other countries, who bring diversity of views that are helpful to us to learn. That I think is a really significant impact.
In the short term, there is also a really burning problem of our students being able to go and study abroad. There’s both the health aspect of that, in terms of being concerned about being able to go to a foreign country and live in a community where there may be incidents of illness, but there’s also just a psychological problem that we’re going to have for a while where we’re going to have a natural tendency to want to stay closer to home. I think we’re going to have to fight that second part of it once we get over the health aspect of it, once we have a vaccine or a treatment. By protocol, we’re going to have a lot of work to do to get over a psychological barrier that will allow us to, to say, okay, it’s it we want to go abroad, not just we need to.
Mathis Bitton: Could you give our readers an overview of your case for forgiving student debt and making college free?
DB: I come at this idea of forgiving federal student loans, or student loans in general, very reluctantly. I spent 25 to 35 years at the US Department of Education, most of which was spent trying to make student loans better, trying to take the steps that were necessary to make student loans work for students rather than for institutions, lenders, and county agencies. But as I transitioned to my present position at the Centre for American Progress, I came to realize that I had never really looked at the underlying problem of student loans themselves. And by that, I mean: why did we start doing student loans to begin with? In 1959, the federal government started to make national student loans. The goal of those loans was to get people to do what we want them to do: become teachers, study science, …. And then those loans would eventually be forgiven. The whole notion of federal student loans was based around the idea that they would be forgiven. But we later learned that this process doesn’t work, because you can’t use the loans to incentivize people to go and do what you want them to do. You can’t manipulate them that much.
Rather than saying that this is a social experiment that failed we spent 50 years doubling down on student loans, and thinking that, magically, they’re going to work the way we want them to. That’s just simply not true. So, student loans are ultimately a failed experiment. Yes, it costs a lot of money to forgive them, but it’s not like it’s paid out at once. Actually, it’s not “paid” for the most part, it merely diminishes the current income of the federal government. Not only are these loans fairly easy to forgive, but there’s a huge benefit to forgiving them, because the people who get that forgiveness will have additional money and resources available for them to spend them in the economy. It’s going to have a positive stimulus effect which we need right now — and which we’ve been needing for a while. Further, in order for us to get people to like the idea of free college, we have to get the debts off their backs. Otherwise they just respond: “it wasn’t free to me. Right? So why should it be free to this next generation?” Well, at one point, college was largely free. And that was for baby boomers like me, who graduated from University of Rhode Island with $350 in debt. It’s a question of intergenerational equity. It’s a question of intergenerational justice, for us to really go back and re-evaluate the role of debt and the role of public support to higher education.
MB: I’m just going to explore further your arguments for forgiving student debt. As you put it, it is an issue of generational justice. But I think that they are at least two reasons why people remain reluctant to embrace this proposal. The first is that even if we grant that the whole concept of student loans was a failed concept in the first place, the very fact that people chose to take on those loans should make them personally responsible for the burden it may represent on their finances. While intergenerational justice matters, this should also be a question of intra-generational justice: within these generations, people chose not to go to college because they wanted to avoid student loans. And most of them were from poorer backgrounds than their college-educated counterparts. It seems like these people are not getting the better end of the proposal. Second, when we’re talking about the federal stimulus loan-forgiveness would generate, I would tend to think that most people who go to college are better off than average. And so if we’re going to inject 1 trillion dollars into the economy over a long period of time so as to provide a Keynesian stimulus, we may want to put this money in the hands of people who chose not to go to college and who are still like stuck at the bottom of the socio-economic ladder—not only would this seem fairer, but they would also be more likely to spend the money.
DB: A couple things. Those are, in my opinion, the most valid arguments against forgiving all student loans. As you put it, the problem is that so many in our society have chosen not to go to college, and those individuals are the ones who are “harmed” by the granting of the forgiveness. I think that’s a very valid criticism of forgiving student loans. But one of the things that we know is that higher levels of educational attainment within a given community drive up the wage-rates for the people at the bottom of the economic ladder. Right. So, when we look at educational attainment, and there’s an upward pressure on income for the lower end of the economic spectrum emerging from people having greater education at the higher end of the spectrum. It’s one of those issues that we need to think about and study more, but we do know that this is a fact. If we want to drive up the earnings of the people at the bottom, we also have to have greater educational attainment just generally in the population. Further, the problem with people being stuck at the bottom is an intergenerational problem. If I’m low income, it’s more likely that my kids won’t go on to college. And one of the reasons they won’t go on is because they won’t be debt-free. So if we’re ever going to break this cycle, we have to take very significant and positive steps to make college debt-free. And I don’t see that there’s political will to move to debt-free college, without first dealing with the overhang of debt that currently exists. As I put it before, people only start to be receptive to the idea that everyone should have the opportunity to go to college once you deal with their own student-debt problems.
KX: I also like the idea of intergenerational equity, but one of the arguments I’ve heard against this sort of proposal is that the value premium from attaining a bachelor’s degree today is no longer what it used to be a couple decades ago, and I was wondering how you would factor in proposals that advocate a stronger reliance on vocational training or intermediary degrees between a high school education and a bachelor’s degree. Do you think that those solutions would work in the long term, or would it be putting a band-aid on the problem instead of solving what’s at the heart of the student debt crisis?
DB: I think it’s more a band-aid, but what I’m a very strong advocate for is the creation and utilization of stackable credentials. Okay, so if I graduated from high school, and I really don’t want to go on to a bachelor’s degree, I’m interested in healthcare, so I become a certified nursing assistant and I have to go and take a year of training to get that certification. Why do I have to start over when I want to get a registered nursing degree, a RN certification, or get a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Right? Why do I have to start over again? Why can’t these credentials be stackable? What we should be about the business of is building a structure, a higher education structure that allows, regardless of the fields you’re in, for there to be a pathway through education, where each step you take builds on the step before. That would go a long way to addressing the short term goals that some students legitimately have when they leave high school and allow them for over the course of their lifetime to grow professionally in whatever field they want to be engaged in and to some extent to be able to move from field to field either because of changes in interest or because of changes in the economy by building some common courses that in business making this business attics and in other skill sets that technology that that will be necessary across their working lifetime and across fields. There are reforms in our educational systems that are necessary to go along with the issues related to financing.
MB: Switching gears, I just wanted to talk to you about the Universal Pass policy that some colleges, including Yale, have adopted. First, I’d like to ask you about what you think of the policy itself, in relation to our current circumstances. Second, what many here have been saying is that while inequalities may be exacerbated due to the health crisis, they remain significant when we are on campus. Some of us have to get jobs, there is a student income contribution for people on financial aid, and so on. I was wondering if you think that we should reform the way in which grading is structured at the university level so as to accommodate what some would call more “structural” forms of inequality.
DB: I think that the conversation surrounding grading is one of many interesting conversations that our times force us to consider. There is so much pressure on students to get the best possible grades. I think about my daughter who’s a couple years out of college. She was amazing at science, but much like everybody else, she struggled a bit in organic chemistry. I know she passed the class — I don’t know what grades she got. I never asked what her grades were in college — I’m kind of a weird dad that way. But for so many people, that grade in that one course determines whether or not they continue to want to become a doctor, go to medical school, become a veterinarian, go to veterinary school. And that focus on getting the highest possible grade in that particular course really results in having way too much pressure on an 18-year-old or 19-year-old, as if this were the one course that determines their future. We need to ask ourselves: why do we make these grades matter so much when in the long term? They don’t matter at all, right? What matters is that you get a degree, in her case from Tulane, in yours from Yale. What matters is your ability to express to your prospective employer, or graduate school, what you learned, how you learned it, and why that educational experience allowed you to grow. Those are the critical questions, not what your grade was in a particular course. And our particular moment around COVID should make us consider these questions more extensively.
KX: Thank you, Mr. Bergeron. It has been really insightful to hear about your thoughts on this, and Mathis and I look very forward to hearing you speak this afternoon. Thank you again for speaking with us.