By Dr. Arthur Keiser

A number of weeks ago, while at Miami Dade College, Florida Senator Marco Rubio called for an overhaul of America’s higher education system in order to close what he calls the “opportunity gap” that exists in our country today, saying, “Those with the right advanced education are making more money than ever.  But those who are not are falling farther and farther behind.”  The Senator then discussed the ways that he believes the higher education community can overcome this gap, including implementing income-based college loan repayment programs, promoting state-accredited alternatives to traditional four-year colleges and new standards for accrediting online education.

What Senator Rubio says makes a lot of sense; it is now more imperative than ever to close the opportunity gap that exists in the United States.  According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employed adults with a high school degree earn a median income of $652 per week.  Those with a bachelor’s degree earn $1,066 per week, while individuals with a master’s degree earn $1,300 per week and those with a doctoral degree earn $1,624 per week.  Further, the unemployment rate for individuals with a bachelor’s degree is 3.8 percent lower than those with a high school education and a stunning 5.8 percent lower for individuals with a doctoral degree.

When statistics like these clearly demonstrate that higher education is the key to higher earnings and stable employment, it’s easy to wonder what’s stopping individuals from continuing their schooling.  There are several answers to that question.  Most often – life just gets in the way.  In many cases, high school graduates who wish to enter an institution of higher learning instead seek employment immediately following high school graduation for financial reasons and never make it back into the classroom.  They are severely inhibiting their long term potential and don’t realize it until they are much older and often with families to support.

The good news is that many universities now provide a wide-variety of options for students who are returning to higher education after a prolonged absence.  In reality, yesterday’s non-traditional students are today’s traditional students.  In 2013, The Wall Street Journal reported that only 29 percent of students enrolled in college today are what most think of as traditional students, those obtaining bachelor’s degrees immediately following high school.  The vast majority of the collegiate population, then, is made up of older students, those obtaining associates’ degrees, those studying online and others.

Universities in Florida can and should do more for these students as they represent the future of higher education.  Senator Rubio’s suggestion that graduates should have access to income-based loan repayment programs is one that I strongly support.  In my long tenure in the higher education community, I’ve seen that one of the impediments prohibiting students from obtaining higher education degrees is the fear that they will be unable to repay their student loans upon graduation.  Implementing and standardizing income-based repayment plans would help address this problem and assuage the concerns of potential students, thus allowing a new sector of the American population to consider higher education for the first time, which would be a step toward reducing the income gap, for example.  We could also further simplify the process by structuring the program to allow for pre-tax, income-based student loan payments, similar to the Social Security and retirement contributions already withdrawn from most individuals’ paychecks.  That way, college graduates would be free to concentrate on what matters the most – furthering their careers and achieving the success they dreamed of when they decided to enroll in college.

Each student is different and it’s important to recognize that if we are to meaningfully address issues surrounding access to higher education.  Specialized attention, small class sizes, personalized programs and career counseling can be the difference between success and failure.  Allowing students to repay their loans on income-based terms that are affordable to graduates will mean that more students can and will choose to further their education.  It’s time to close the opportunity gap in the United States and ensure the best future for all Americans, both traditional and non-traditional.

Arthur Keiser, Ph.D. is Chancellor of Keiser University, which has 15 campuses in the state of Florida and he is a Member of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, appointed by United States Speaker of the House John Boehner.

The views and opinions expressed in this document are solely those of the contributing author. These views and opinions do not necessarily represent those of Keiser University and/or the Keiser University student body and staff.