Late this summer, President Obama picked up the traditional American view of education as the door to opportunity and proposed several reforms in American higher education. Some were designed to provide consumer information and consumer protection for students and parents (and the federal government). Some innovations were enumerated and innovation was verbally encouraged - and some R & D funds were offered - but there didn't seem to be any greater federal regulations or resources en route. That would be up to the states.
Obama's Better Bargain
On August 22, President Obama visited Henninger High School in Syracuse, New York, to talk about "What used to be taken for granted -- middle-class security". Citing some of the progress his administration has made in the last four years, he said that America had further to go, and the way to get there was education.
"The unemployment rate for Americans with at least a college degree is about a third lower than the national average. The incomes of people with at least a college degree are more than twice what the incomes are of Americans who don't have a high school diploma. So more than ever before, some form of higher education -- two year, four year, technical college -- that's the path into the middle class."
But cost is an obstacle. "Over the past three decades, the average tuition at a four-year public college has risen by more than 250 percent. The typical family income has gone up 16 percent...," so that the "...average student who borrows for college now graduates owing more than $26,000." He said that state legislatures are cutting higher education appropriations, colleges and universities are not controlling their own costs, and the federal government can't make up the difference. "Higher education," he said, "should not be a luxury."
He said that he would do three things:
With that, the White House swung into action. The proposals were part of the
- "Number one, I'm directing my administration to come up with a new ratings system for colleges that will score colleges on opportunity - whether they're helping students from all kinds of backgrounds succeed; and on outcomes - whether students are graduating with manageable debt; whether they're actually graduating in the first place; whether they have strong career potential when they graduate."
- "Our second goal: We want to encourage more colleges to embrace innovation, to try new ways of providing a great education without breaking the bank. A growing number of colleges across the country are testing some new approaches, so they're finding new ways, for example, to use online education to save time and money."
- "Number three: We're going to make sure that if you've taken on debt to earn your degree that you can manage and afford it."
Reactions to the Better Bargain
The Obama administration was already working on reforming for-profit education, which includes a number of companies that have been preying on discharged veterans, and Inside Higher Ed observed that some of Obama's proposals resembled the sort of consumer-information and consumer-protection innovations directed at the for-profits: " An underlying goal both of those regulations and this plan is an attempt to judge colleges based on the 'value' they provide to students and taxpayers, based on a mix of student outcomes."
Obama's proposals were quickly endorsed by some public college leaders and academic celebrities, and some advocates of business models for higher education. The Chronicle of Higher Education detected the influence of several organizations, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Meanwhile, institutions and their organizations and lobbyists scrambled to get into the decision-making loop.
The American Association of University Professors was unhappy, complaining that the consulting with educators planned by the Obama Administration will consist of talking with administrators, not faculty. Starting with college costs, the AAUP noted that the problem was not growth in faculty or faculty salaries (especially considering the replacement of retiring tenured faculty with cheap contingent adjuncts and instructors), but instead blamed declining state appropriations and growing administrative costs (both in salaries and in numbers of administrators).
In fact, one blogger at the Chronicle of Higher Education suggested that at least part of the problem was the rise in indebtedness of public research institutions that went into debt to construct facilities for marketing purposes.
Reality Check. One recurrent complaint was that Obama's proposals presumed that higher education served primarily vocational purposes. Academics have long criticized colleagues who trained their students to become job-seekers -- witness Socrates' complaints about the Sophists. But just as the Church founded schools a thousand years ago to train clerks -- and ambitious youngsters went to those proto-universities in pursuit of careers -- so governments today fund education for mundane reasons. Cardinal John Henry Newman's rationale for a university education -- ... the force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect, the command over our own powers, the instinctive just estimate of things as they pass before us, which sometimes indeed is a natural gift, but commonly is not gained without much effort and the exercise of years ... is not the reason kings and presidents have for creating these institutions. Thomas Jefferson's rationale, If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be is more compelling, but not to sufficiently cynical politicians (recall Herblock's quote of a senator wailing, "If people are to become educated and vote, what is to become of us?") Politicians fund higher education for economic reasons, and the American public supports higher education for economic reasons.
This proposal is a mix of micro-management, opportunities of improvement, and consumer rights, for students seeking opportunity and a nation seeking a skilled workforce. New America Foundation activist Kevin Carey may have a point when he argues that education lobbyists who simply respond with objections may fritter away any influence they have. It may be, as the AAUP contends, that this is a higher education version of No Child Left Behind - after all, New America's programs have received $ 4 million dollars from Gates and similar reformers. But the issues of cost are real, and while ideologues and charlatans sell their snake oil to politicians, educators are making real headway in developing teaching techniques. With a little bit of luck, we can persuade some of the more sensible politicians to support institutions (like USF!) that engage in educational research, without the ideological and special interest micromanagement.