Higher Education In the Spotlight

From student loans to academic freedom, all has not been well in the ivory tower

Admissions rates are plummeting. Tuition is skyrocketing. The student loan industry is corrupt. Top-notch students are being sent out of the United States after graduation.

For better or for worse, the public spotlight has gravitated toward the world of higher education this past year. In light of this heightened scrutiny, we hope that institutions of higher education reaffirm their commitment to allowing all to go to college—regardless of their background—and to protecting intellectual freedom.

The rising cost of college tuition makes the need for student loan reform ever more apparent. As most students in need of aid rely heavily on federal loans, Congress’ January decision to cut interest rates on student loans was welcome. But despite its good intentions, Congress did not do enough. The efficacy of its latest effort was tempered by an imminent expiration date and last year’s $12 billion cut to the federal loan program—both of which limit the ability of such loan programs to truly aid those in need. Congress should solidify its commitment to higher learning by expanding its loan program, thereby making college accessible to students on any rung of the socio-economic ladder.

While the federal loan program has seen positive change, the world of private loans has been wracked by scandals that undermine student interests. As many financial aid packages recommend private loan options to students who are unfamiliar with the lending world, the need for accurate and thorough information becomes profoundly important. Private loans are an integral source of funding for students; in the 2004-2005 academic year alone, students borrowed over $13.4 billion for college tuition, according to the College Board.

Unfortunately, many students are entering into debt uninformed—or worse, misled. Many universities, including Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School (thought not the College), list “preferred lenders”—a practice which serves business interests at the expense of student interests. Such listings essentially guarantee a company business, as many families new to the lending world blindly trust the recommendations of their universities without considering options that might be more suited to their needs. Yet that trust has been betrayed by a series of revelations that administrators at colleges across the country who are supposed to help students are often in bed with loan companies. Thankfully, there has been a groundswell of public and legal pressure that has begun to reform student loans. We hope that pressure does not abate so that lenders are kept in check and students are not swindled.

In addition to the socio-economic barriers to going to college, international students are forced to navigate the jungle of student and work visas. Of particular concern to graduating international students has been the dearth of H1-B visas, which allow highly skilled workers to work in the U.S. The number of H1-Bs is capped at a dismally low 65,000, closing the door to thousands of capable and skillful immigrants—including American-educated students—who wish to contribute to the American economy. This year alone, over 133,000 applications were submitted for the 65,000 available visas on the first application day—dooming many members of the Harvard Class of 2007 to effective deportation because they had barely taken midterms by the date on which they needed proof of graduation.

The U.S. economy has thrived for so long in part because it attracts the world’s greatest minds. The H1-B cap, however, undermines that inviting sprit by turning away many talented individuals out of a misplaced desire to “protect” American jobs. Consequently, Congress should increase, if not wholly eliminate, the H1-B quota. Here at Harvard, the administration should do all it can to assist our international students in need of visas.

While issues of financing and immigration certainly bode ill for accessibility to education, equally dangerous to the university’s charge are threats to academic and journalistic freedom. In November, the administration at the University of Southern California blocked the re-election of Zach Fox as editor in chief of the Daily Trojan, objecting to his call for greater financial transparency and a reorganization of the paper’s senior positions. The administration’s willingness to actively intervene in the student publication’s elections raised serious concerns about the independence of the collegiate press. Universities, like society at large, rely on a free press to provide a check on administrative authority and misuse of power. Administrative oversight, has a chilling effect by forcing students to weigh their journalistic duty against fear of disciplinary sanction from the university. No journalist—student or professional—should have to make such a choice. We applaud efforts to give legislative protection to the collegiate press, such as a bill passed by the Illinois legislature earlier this year.

Closer to home, the issue of academic freedom was raised by a September speech by former Iranian president Mohammed Khatami. Some criticized Harvard for extending an invitation to Khatami. But a University is a forum for debate and discussion and should invite guests based on their qualifications, not how objectionable their opinions may be. As a world leader, Khatami deserved his place at the podium.

Ultimately, our profound respect for the university stems from our belief that the halls of higher learning expand human understanding, challenge existing prejudices, and push society towards progress. But that vision only has weight when academic freedoms are honored and when the promise of higher education is accessible to all.