The Education Department characterized Mr. Duncan’s remarks, at a Las Vegas conference of college financial aid workers, as the start of a “national conversation” about high costs, which have prompted raucous protests across the country and ignited an angry push among some borrowers demanding debt forgiveness, federal grants and interest-free loans.
The department used the opportunity to call attention to steps the Obama administration had taken to reduce the net price that students and families pay for higher education and make it easier to repay student loans. But it was clear that the administration was taking heed of the rising furor over tuition increases, and a growing online debate about how much a college degree is worth at a time when few jobs are available for graduates.
“Three in four Americans now say that college is too expensive for most people to afford,” Mr. Duncan said. “That belief is even stronger among young adults — three-fourths of whom believe that graduates today have more debt than they can manage.”
College seniors with loans now graduate with an average debt load of more than $25,000. With outstanding student debt nearing $1 trillion — and exceeding credit-card debt — it makes sense that, as Patrick M. Callan, president of the Higher Education Policy Institute, put it, college costs are in the spotlight as never before.
“I’m glad to see the administration use the bully pulpit, but the problem issue won’t be solved by exhortation alone,” Mr. Callan said. “We’ve put huge amounts into Pell grants under Clinton, Bush and Obama, but the money that went to financial aid has been absorbed by tuition increases. And with all that we’ve invested, we have a less affordable system than we had a decade ago. We’re on a national treadmill.”
And he and other education experts point out that despite the power of the bully pulpit, the Obama administration has little power to force change. Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, said that while he welcomed Mr. Duncan’s speech, he wondered how much the federal government could actually accomplish.
“The federal government can ease the burden of tuition increases with financial aid, but there is no mechanism for it to force the states to maintain funding for higher ed,” Mr. Hartle said. “And what legislators see is that tuition goes up and enrollment stays high.”
While devoting most of his speech to the cost problem, Mr. Duncan sketched out three department initiatives using the same kind of financial incentives he has previously used to spur K-12 reform. He described plans to replace the expiring Perkins loan program with campus-based, low-cost student loans awarded in part on how well the campus has done in graduating Pell recipients; incentive grants rewarding states and institutions for making changes that increase completion rates and close achievement gaps; and a fund to support programs that use innovation to accelerate learning and hold down tuition.
Even as college has become more expensive, Mr. Duncan said, it has also become an increasingly important investment, because those with bachelor’s degrees, on average, earn about $1 million more over their lifetime than those with only a high school diploma.
The widespread anger over rising college costs came into sharp focus Monday at two student protests. In New York, City University of New York students and their supporters held a raucous street protest, with signs saying “CUNY must be free” and “Abolish the board of trustees,” as trustees approved a series of $300 annual tuition increases extending through 2015.
And in California, Cheryl Deutsch, a U.C.L.A. graduate student who leads the union representing student workers, confronted the university’s regents to extended applause when she said that as bankers and financiers, real estate developers and members of the corporate elite, they were not representative of the people of California. “You are not representative of the students of U.C. You are the 1 percent,” Ms. Deutsch said.
Just before Thanksgiving, Occupy Wall Street spawned the Occupy Student Debt Campaign, which asks for zero interest on student debt, federally financed public higher education and the forgiveness of all existing debt. At Occupystudentdebtcampaign.com, the campaign asks donors to sign a Pledge of Refusal, which promises that when a million signatures have been gathered, all will cease to make their debt payments.
“It’s basically a strike threat, but it gives debtors, many of whom have gray hair at this point, a way to act collectively, rather than suffer the agony and isolation of their debt,” said Andrew Ross, a New York University professor who is one of the organizers of the campaign. “We think education is a right and a public good, and we think federal funding is the only way the United States can join the list of other countries that offer free public education.”
Mr. Duncan lauded those colleges, universities and state programs that cut tuition — few enough that he was able to cite almost every effort — and those with programs increasing educational attainment, while lowering costs.
He named, for example, Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, which is offering a 50 percent discount on tuition and fees for freshmen who enroll in the school of education; the University of Oregon’s PathwayOregon, guaranteeing a tuition-free education to qualified Oregonians from low-income families, and, in West Virginia, the University of Charleston’s plan to cut tuition 22 percent for next year’s incoming freshmen and transfer students.
Mr. Duncan also mentioned Western Governors University, a lower-cost online nonprofit institution whose students earn degrees not by putting in a set number of hours but through demonstrated mastery of their field.
While such programs are now the exception, Mr. Duncan said, “I want them to be the norm.”