UCR professor presents an optimistic forecast for the future of higher education in America

In an article titled “Is this the Golden Age for Higher Education?” recently published in the Chronicle for Higher Education, Dr. Stephen Brint, a professor of sociology and public policy at UC Riverside, argues that despite the pessimism in media outlets regarding the usefulness and alleged biases on university campuses, colleges are stronger than ever and won’t be going anywhere anytime soon. During an exclusive interview with the Highlander, Brint continued to highlight various examples of how institutions of higher learning across America have successfully overcome various contemporary challenges with impressive levels of resiliency.

One issue that has recently garnered attention is the high amount of research that is generated on college campuses every year. In his article, Brint claims that universities consistently outrank private think-tanks and other government-funded research labs in both volume of data and quality of innovation. He attributes this primarily to a strong culture of curiosity and intellectual freedom in various colleges across the country today.

Colleges have not escaped criticism, as tuition continues to outpace the rate of inflation and students increasingly rely on both private and public loan programs to help alleviate rising costs. However, Brint does not believe that this is so much a symptom of university policy itself rather than politics. “When you look at rising tuition, it almost always increases the most during recessionary periods, which is also when the government has far less money to dole out for colleges,” he said. “Most of the disparities in affordability vary the most between Democratic and Republican states, where attitudes about taxation and government spending couldn’t be starker.”

Brint acknowledges that tuition will continue to be a problem that universities will struggle to find the perfect solution for. He is skeptical of free college plans for two reasons: “It’s welfare for the rich, and free community colleges tend to have a lower quality of education compared to state universities.” However, Brint believes that more funding in general towards Pell Grants and various other aid programs can only help, not hurt. “It’s important to realize that when you remove tuition completely, student motivation may, in certain cases, decrease,” he stated. “Many European countries have free tuition colleges, but they lack the prestigious names that we have here in America because there’s a serious difference in both effort and quality.”

Brint also has a message to young graduates who are worried about debt — it will pay off, and the difference couldn’t be greater. “All the research shows that students who earn a bachelor’s degree earn at least $1 million more in their lifetimes than students without college experience,” he explained. “If we assume that the average student takes about $50,000 in loans over a four-year period, that’s still an excellent return-on-investment.” He also argues that the vast majority of students struggling to repay debts are those taking on masters or doctorate degrees, or students who’ve never finished college or attended for-profit schools. Conversely, students who pursue advanced degrees often earn several times the salary of the average bachelor’s graduate.

One of the solutions that Brint proposes is a “universal income contingent loan repayment” program, which would essentially only require college debts to be paid off for graduates or families who have earned above a certain threshold. A similar proposal that is often used across Europe is the “graduate tax,” which basically allows students to attend college for free, but are required to pay a certain percentage of their income back to the university once they’re employed.

Despite these challenges, Brint remains optimistic, and believes that our institutions of higher learning are fully equipped to find the right solutions. Brint concluded that this is what universities have been doing since the beginning of their existence — inventing new ideas to solve new problems.

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