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Former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator Bob Kerrey, seen here in a debate against Republican Deb Fischer in Lincoln, Neb., on Monday, Oct. 1, 2012, has bold ideas about the future of higher education innovation. After serving for a decade as president of the New School, a private university in New York City, Kerrey is now executive chairman of the Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship.

Bob Kerrey, a former Nebraska governor and U.S. senator, has long had a passion for education reform.

After leaving the Senate in 2000, Kerrey served for a decade as president of the New School, a private university in New York City, and he is now executive chairman of the Minerva Institute for Research and Scholarship.

The Minerva Project has partnered to create an innovative new university experience meant to offer an Ivy League-style education at half the cost. Students at the Minerva School at Keck Graduate Institute learn college material, but rather than attend classes at a traditional campus, they spend time in various cities throughout the world. They move as a group from one city and country to another, all the while taking courses that blend online and traditional instruction.

Kerrey recently spoke with the Deseret News about his views of innovations in higher education.

DN: How did you become so interested in and passionate about higher education?

Kerrey: It began to be a focus when I went to college, and ramped up when I was a governor, then senator. I was elected to the Senate as the Cold War was coming to an end. Those events gave me accelerated appreciation for the importance of higher education for nations and individuals. Being a university president for 10 years deepened my enthusiasm for the work of higher education. It’s very gratifying work.

DN: In what ways do you consider the U.S. higher education system to be a success story?

Kerrey: First, this is still the preferred country to come to for a higher education degree, and that’s a pretty good test. The second area is in research, where we have a tremendous competitive advantage.

One of the most important things that happens in higher education, for most entering freshmen, is that first time experiencing real freedom. There is evidence that higher education institutions are doing a very good job of helping that young person to make high-quality decisions. I wish they were partying less, drinking less and getting into slightly less trouble. But for the most part, they are not getting into trouble.

If you look at aggregate numbers of all college graduates, they will earn as much as 40 percent more than those who don’t go to college. Even considering accumulated debt, it looks to me like a substantial success.

DN: Despite those successes, you are a strong proponent for reforms in higher education to lower costs, increase access and improve the quality and skills of graduates. In your view, what factors are responsible for driving up the cost of higher education?

Kerrey: Higher education is very competitive. We compete for students, faculty and donors. But as we compete, we often add something alumni like or that helps us recruit students. We don’t really compete by trying to provide higher quality and lower cost. We have all these intercollegiate athletic programs, and brand new buildings and residence halls. It’s not unimportant. But unless you have a great Division 1 football or basketball team, ESPN won’t pay enough to justify all these programs.

Graduate programs can be very expensive, and undergraduate tuition ends up paying the cost along with a tremendous amount of overhead on administrative and academic sides. When we talk about salary costs, the first thing people talk about is university presidents and deans. They don’t look at the academic side (professor salaries). It’s off-limits. Under shared governance, the faculty has significant authority in decision-making but no real repercussions in dealing with the consequences.

People say that online education is not as good as sitting in a desk on campus. But look at what the [Massive Open Online Course] edX is doing for MIT and Harvard — it’s spectacular. It doesn’t cost. Why can’t we use it? You get a certificate for completing the courses, but it doesn’t add to the credits you need to graduate.

DN: How can U.S. colleges and universities make the best use of new learning technologies?

Kerrey: Don’t be so defensive about it. That’s easy to say but hard to do because people are worried about their jobs. You see it in other companies; these technologies are disruptive. How can someone get enthusiastic about improving instruction if it means losing their job? But if we’ve got great content that costs less, we should use that.

DN: What can be done to improve access to postsecondary education for all U.S. students?

Kerrey: Everybody in higher education needs to do everything possible to increase quality and lower costs. There is no longer a credible argument for charging as much as we do. You can’t make a case for continuing to build so many buildings, mostly to recruit students and to make alumni happy. It can be clearly demonstrated that there is content on the Internet that is as good as the classroom but has the advantage of being free. We need to start applying it and quit making excuses.

DN: What role does accreditation play in fostering or inhibiting innovation in higher education?

Kerrey: We can lower costs by changing the basic organic structure of undergraduate programs and taking advantage of educational technology that produces higher quality and lowers costs. Innovative new programs are expected to graduate a class of students before they can apply for accreditation. But it’s hard to enroll students unless you have accreditation.

Accreditors need to look for ways to achieve their quality objectives but grant accreditation before the first student is enrolled. For existing universities, accreditors can help by looking for ways to encourage the application of technological and other innovations that could produce lower costs. The accreditors’ role is overlooked by the general public — and their representatives. I didn’t discover it until I became a university president.

DN: Higher education enrollment is declining in some areas of the U.S. How will shifting demographics shape the future of American colleges and universities?

Kerrey: High school graduates are voting with their feet. There are complaints about the price of college and lots of options that produce certificates for what employers want. Employers have become colleges themselves by running many kinds of training programs, usually explicit to their needs. Individuals are saying, “I’ve got a choice. I can take this job, or I can go to college to become a better human being — and maybe get a job."

DN: If you could structure federal student aid in your own way, what would you do?

Kerrey: I would take a third of the money and put it into [pre-kindergarten] instruction. If you wait until someone is a seventh-grader and behind in math and vocabulary, they never catch up. I think of Americans as a team or a tribe. We can’t afford to have 25 percent of our team unable to produce at their highest and best capabilities.

DN: You advocate for global education. Why should U.S. college students experience life in other nations?

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Kerrey: At age 18, you are a U.S. citizen, participating in decisions of the country that has the world’s most powerful democracy, economy and military. Your livelihood will depend on your capacity to understand what’s going on in the rest of the world. Even if you don’t leave the U.S. to work, experience abroad will improve the quality of your workplace effort. You learn to adjust to a set of circumstances that are foreign and figure out how to make it work. Finding out that you can and must learn to get along in uncomfortable environments is an important thing to learn, even if you never leave the U.S. again. And it’s fun to meet other people of the world.

Email: cbaker@deseretnews.com Twitter: @celiarbaker