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Marco Rubio is the only Republican talking about college costs. Here’s what his plan would mean.

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When a young Marco Rubio arrived at Tarkio College in 1989, nothing about the 550-student college in northwest Missouri marked it as an obvious choice. Tarkio was a small, little-known liberal arts college far away from Rubio's hometown of Miami. But Rubio played football, and Tarkio had a football team — and a partial scholarship for him.

What Rubio didn't know was that Tarkio was in deep trouble. Less than two years later, it would close its doors for good, bankrupt, its reputation in tatters.

Tarkio, founded by Presbyterians in the late 19th century, had been struggling financially in the early 1980s. So the college lent its name and its accreditation to vocational programs in St. Louis and Kansas City, recruiting students from homeless shelters and soup kitchens to participate.

Exploiting people who need a college credential to get a job, and who can take out federal loans to earn one, is a common technique for unscrupulous colleges. But it eventually backfires, and as Rubio arrived at Tarkio, the consequences were becoming clear. Tarkio's student loan default rate had soared to a staggering 78 percent. Its president had resigned. Shortly after Rubio arrived, its accreditor put it on probation. The Education Department ordered it to return $22 million in misused grants.

By the time Rubio took his first-semester finals, rumors were spreading that the college wouldn't last much longer. He left a semester later for a Florida community college, alarmed about the future of football at Tarkio, the transferability of his credits, and the value of his eventual degree. By the time Rubio graduated from the University of Florida in 1993 and went on to law school, Tarkio was gone.

It has almost vanished from Rubio's story. As a Republican senator from Florida and a 2016 presidential aspirant, he's more likely to talk about his student loans, a burden of nearly $150,000 in debt from law school that took a book deal to pay off.

But the full story of Rubio's experiences in higher education is almost a parable about the promise and the problems of college in the US.

Every year, hundreds of thousands of students go to college uncertain of the value of the degree they'll eventually earn. Some of them land at unscrupulous colleges that put tuition revenue first and foremost. Many of them will transfer before graduation. Most of those will worry about whether their credits will come with them. And many students graduate with crushing amounts of debt.

Most of those students don't become national politicians with the ability to change the face of higher education.

Rubio did.

How Rubio sees higher education

Rubio's higher education proposals spring from two underlying principles. The first is that higher education is an economic issue. The US is lagging behind other advanced countries in college graduation rates, and jobs in the future will require more education, not less. And so his plans focus on getting credentials, including four-year degrees, two-year degrees, and certificates, to people who might not otherwise earn them.

The second is a belief that higher education needs to be disrupted. If it's easier for startups to compete with traditional colleges, and if students are given more information about how those programs compare, Rubio believes, competition will drive down prices and put the worst colleges out of business. He sees the government's role as forcing colleges to be more transparent and opening up a more competitive marketplace, including by making it easier for students at startups to get some federal financial aid.

The Democrats running for president in 2016 have coalesced around an emerging consensus that students should not have to take on debt to pay college tuition, and that the best solution to prevent this is for the federal government to subsidize states and lower the price of attending public colleges.

Rubio's ideas are the closest thing so far to a Republican counterweight to those ideas. His plan acknowledges unmanageable student debt, but not the need for students to borrow, as a problem. And he focuses more on encouraging new forms of higher education to compete with traditional colleges and universities than he does on the problems of colleges that already exist.

This isn't primarily a partisan fight; President Obama has endorsed similar ideas. It's a broader debate about the nature and purpose of college itself. Many of Rubio's proposals deal with things that don't look like "college" to most Americans. But he's convinced they're the future of higher education in the US.

How Rubio's big idea would work

Rubio during the first Republican debate on Aug. 6.

(Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Rubio's biggest higher education proposal is that, if elected, he'd overhaul accreditation in his first 100 days in office.

The federal government doesn't control accreditation, even though accreditation is necessary to participate in for federal financial aid programs. Instead, the process is run by groups of colleges and universities, mostly organized by region, who evaluate and pass judgment on each other. (Another type of accreditation also exists as quality control for individual programs of study, such as pharmacy or journalism, but it isn't necessary to get federal financial aid.)

Being accredited is not just a passport to the student loan program. It's also a coveted symbol that a college is legitimate.

This system is frequently criticized on both the left and the right, with three major arguments against it:

  1. Accreditation prioritizes the wrong things. Historically, accreditation has focused on things like how many professors have PhDs, whether a college has a mission statement, and whether degree programs require a broad, general education as well as a specific major. Critics, including Margaret Spellings, the education secretary under President George W. Bush, have argued this misses an important point: whether students are learning. Most accreditors now require colleges to define the outcomes they want for their students and measure whether they're meeting them, but it gives colleges a lot of leeway on what those outcomes are.
  2. Accreditation is a barrier to innovation. In order to get accreditation the first time, colleges have to already have existed for several years. Accreditors argue that they need a track record in order to approve a college. But without accreditation or the access to federal financial aid it provides, it can be difficult for colleges to stay open long enough to become a candidate, or for programs that don't look like "college" as many people imagine it to gain access at all.
  3. Accreditation is failing as quality control. Corinthian Colleges had accreditation up until it went bankrupt this year, and the federal government is now forgiving billions of dollars in Corinthian students' debt.

Rubio's plan to overhaul accreditation leaves the traditional system in place. But beside it, he'd set up another route for colleges and college-like programs to get access to federal financial aid. He will soon introduce a bill that would create a congressionally appointed panel to oversee "authorizers," alternatives to accrediting agencies that could approve both traditional colleges and startups.

Programs would have to prove that they were offering something valuable to students. They'd have to meet benchmarks on graduation rates, pass rates on professional licensing tests, and employment rates after graduation.

Programs that met the benchmarks for five years would be allowed to get access to a small portion of the federal Pell Grant program, which offers need-based grants. Those with a shorter track record would get a smaller slice that increases over time if they continued to perform well. Programs would be required to put up matching funds to ensure that they weren't depending on the government money to survive.

Under Rubio's bill, nontraditional programs could gain access to about $1.6 billion in federal Pell Grant money per year.

Those programs could be things like combinations of cheap, often online courses that are meant to make it quicker or easier to get a degree and a job. StraighterLine offers a $99 membership for $49 online courses with credit that can transfer to more traditional colleges. Udacity, which started out providing massive open online courses, has created what it calls "nanodegrees," a short curriculum that's meant to help students get a job in tech. Rubio is also a supporter of competency-based education, which awards credit when students can prove they've gained certain skills, allowing them to move at their own pace.

The plan is squarely aimed at addressing the criticism that accreditation impedes innovation. But it also nods to the other critiques. By emphasizing student outcomes as the most important measuring stick for judging higher education, Rubio hopes that his plan would set a better example of quality control, one that could eventually spread to traditional accreditors as well.

Rubio argues his plan would transform higher education

The New York Times Next New World Conference

Udacity co-founder Sebastian Thrun speaks at a conference. Udacity's "nanodegrees" might benefit from a new method of accreditation.

Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for New York Times

Rubio promises that his accreditation reform would "expose higher education to the market forces of choice and competition, which would prompt a revolution driven by the needs of students," aided by an accompanying proposal to make colleges tell students more about their average loan debt, salaries, and graduation rates.

Creating a way for startups to access some federal financial aid programs would certainly make those programs more attractive to low-income students. And Rubio makes clear that his plan is meant for people who want some kind of postsecondary credential, not necessarily a four-year degree. He's pledged to push the federal government to set an example by hiring workers with alternative college credentials — Udacity "nanodegrees," for example — to prove the value those alternatives could have in the workplace.

But the idea that accreditation reform will lead to improvements for most college students hinges on the idea that accreditation is a barrier to innovation, and that innovation alone is enough to push more traditional colleges to change.

That's a much more tenuous case. Cheaper alternatives to a college degree would be most likely to affect for-profit colleges, whose degrees are far more expensive than some of the startup alternatives, and community colleges, which target a similar market of people who mostly want a credential to get a better job.

Some programs that would benefit the most from Rubio's ideas aren't sure this is what they want. Buying into the federal financial aid system means being subject to far more government regulation than playing outside of it does.

General Assembly, a startup that offers classes meant to prepare students for tech jobs, doesn't have traditional accreditation and so can only offer its students loans from banks and finance companies, not the federal government.

But that doesn't mean it wants to be a part of the federal system. In May, the CEO of General Assembly told Inside Higher Ed that federal financial aid was at the root of the problems with higher education, and that General Assembly would prefer not to take it.

Nor has accreditation been as hostile to innovation as its critics allege. New systems of awarding credit, including an acclaimed competency-based program at Southern New Hampshire University that Rubio cites, have done so with the approval of their accrediting agency. StraighterLine students can't use financial aid to pay for their $49 courses, but they can transfer them to many more traditional universities. The Minerva Project, a startup for-profit university that was among the loudest critics of traditional accreditation, ended up getting accredited by partnering with an existing college.

And while the boom in for-profit colleges in the 1990s and early 2000s has had many negative consequences, it did introduce more competition, all under accreditors' supposedly watchful eye.

The story of Tarkio College, Rubio's first brush with higher education, is worth considering here. It supports some of the points he makes: that students need more information about the college they're going to, that accreditation is a flawed system, and that some bad colleges do eventually go out of business.

But it also shows that the gap between when a college begins to struggle in the market and when it actually closes its doors can be perilous for students.

"What happened to Tarkio is the story not only of a proud old college that died but also of the desperation that drives some small private colleges to do almost anything to stay open," the New York Times wrote in 1991, when the college was closing and Rubio had already transferred back to Florida. "It shows how the overlapping system of regulating higher education — directors, accrediting agencies and the Federal Government — can fail to protect colleges and students."

The question for Rubio's plans is not just whether new accreditation systems will provide better alternatives to a place like Tarkio. It's whether warning students away from bad colleges with better information will be enough, or whether, as they sink, they'll be determined to drag some students down with them.

Rubio is taking a side in a debate about the future of college

Man watching lecture on his laptop

Rubio has also taken a side in a debate about online learning. (Shutterstock)

With his proposals, Rubio is also taking a side in a bigger ongoing debate, one that isn't really about politics. It's about what college is for, and, by extension, what the college of the future should look like.

One side could be deemed the traditionalists. They argue that college, while flawed in many and different ways, works pretty well for most people. It serves a variety of purposes — including developing students intellectually and helping them come of age — besides career preparation. The traditionalists don't argue that college is without flaws; they often decry its perpetuation of inequality, its growing focus on job preparation, and its new reliance on adjunct professors, among other concerns. But they argue that its benefits are worth having, and that the new methods of delivering higher education will shortchange the students who need it most, including those who are low-income or the first in their family to go to college.

The other side of the debate, the disruptors, argues that many students go to college for one main reason: to get a better job. And providing a passport to a career for many of those students, particularly those who aren't 18 or upper-middle-class or interested in living in a dorm, can be done without the trappings of a modern university, like research, or football, or tenured faculty.

The debate between disruptors and traditionalists isn't political, at least not in the traditional sense. Members of both parties have embraced parts of each argument. And so Rubio's higher education proposals have a centrist feel: Obama talked about overhauling accreditation in a similar way, albeit with a stronger government role. Clinton agrees with Rubio about the best way to pay back student loans.

But more than anyone else in politics so far, Rubio has extolled the disruptors' point of view. He argues that there are many Americans who aren't being served well by the existing higher education system, and that the solution is not improving the system but overhauling it completely. On the important debate about the future of college, he's not a traditionalist or even a conservative. He's a radical.