Obama’s higher ed plan, first thoughts

President Obama unveiled his higher education plan this morning at the University of Buffalo.  It’s an important document, and in this post I’ll offer some initial reflections.

Obama before the crowd.  Photo by Mark Green.

One key structure links student performance at an institution to the provision of financial aid.  This involves a few moving parts:

  • creating a new college and university ratings system;
  • rewarding and punishing campuses with varying levels of federal financial aid;
  • coaxing (“challeng[ing]”) states to do the same with their support to public institutions.

College and universities which enroll high numbers of lower-income students, as measured by the number of Pell Grant holders, will receive a financial bonus.  The government will tie continued individual aid to academic performance (“encourag[ing] students to complete their studies on time”.  And the plan also proposes to cap student loan collection at 10% of the holder’s earnings.

The accreditation system is a bold move, a direct challenge to higher education – in effect, an expression of disappointment that academia couldn’t fix things itself.  For several years President Obama has called on college and university administration to cut costs, as I documented in Future Trends reports.  An email sent several days ago included this thrown-down gauntlet:

My plan includes real reforms that would bring lasting change. They won’t all be popular with everyone —including some who’ve made higher education their business — but it’s past time that more of our colleges work better for the students they exist to serve. [emphasis added]

Today’s document leads off by criticizing college costs, and repeats that charge throughout: “college tuition keeps rising”, “too many young adults are burdened with debt”.  Obama notes that these increases happened over time, a continuous rise which campuses failed to restrain.  Now the federal government will take steps.  As Inside Higher Ed observes, this challenge takes on colleges’ ability to evaluate themselves:

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.

Tying accreditation to student outcomes will take a lot of work, which the statement recognizes, offering 2018 (during Obama’s successor’s second year) as a deadline.  Naturally many academics will oppose this for a variety of reasons ranging from pedagogical to curricular to political.  As the New York Times puts it, the plan is “likely to cause some consternation among colleges”.  Or, elsewhere in that article,

“There are all kinds of issues, like deciding how far down the road you are looking, and which institutions are comparable,” said Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, a group representing colleges and universities. “Ultimately, the concern is that the Department of Education will develop a formula and impose it without adequate consultation, and that’s what drives campus administrators nuts.”

Note that ACE plays a major role in supporting MOOCs.

In fact, the politics of this proposal seem to doom much of it from the start.  Obama wants fifty states to follow the plan, but has little leverage.  He will need Congressional support, which hasn’t exactly been forthcoming of late, and will probably decline as the president enters classic lame duck status.  And Obama needs the roughly 4,500 institutions of higher education to participate.  The plan depends heavily on getting other political actors to do things they probably don’t want to do.   It uses a great deal of language involving “challenge”, “request”, and “propose”.  Only a few parts can be created by executive command: the new ratings system, shifting financial aid distribution, regulatory waivers.

On a related note, the plan approves of using technology to reduce costs and improve student outcomes, but support is not clear.  MOOCs, student services software, flipped classrooms all appear.  Obama calls for a “$260 million First in the World fund” to reward innovation in general, not just related to technology; convincing Congress to add this to the Department of Education’s budget won’t be easy.

Data analytics drives this structure.  The Obama proposal emphasizes this aspect (example: “The Department of Education will enlist entrepreneurs and technology leaders with a “Datapalooza” to catalyze new private-sector tools, services, and apps to help students evaluate and select colleges”).

This new approach to higher education has much in common with the Obama administration’s K-12 strategy.  The document namechecks Race to the Top, and has that policy’s combination of new assessment and targeted funding.  This expanded effort has already elicited criticism.  One InsideHigherEd article comment thinks the plan means “NCLB [No Child Left Behind] comes to higher ed.”  Tyler Cowan worries that redirecting financial aid would be biased by politics or preexisting institutional wealth, “simply boost[ing] the [federal support] subsidy to high performing colleges”.

In short, at first blush this looks like a contentious plan with a great deal of incipient political opposition.

There’s more to come as the president gives more speeches over the next week, and as political positions shake out. What do you think of this plan and these reactions?

(photo by Mark Green)

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19 Responses to Obama’s higher ed plan, first thoughts

  1. edwebb says:

    The analytics-based assessment bit of this will remain hugely problematic/contentious so long as there is no consensus on the goals of higher education, particularly if that consensus has to include government, business, the punditocracy and actual educators.

  2. Step in the right direction, with lots of problems, and very little of it has a chance of getting passed in current climate. Which is odd, because this is a plan that Republicans should actually like somewhat. It strikes me that this is where Selingo’s Obamacare comparison hits its mark — this is the sort of plan you’d expect 1990’s Republicans to jump on. But their insistence that Obama have no “victories” means this will sink.

    So, that said, what’s the point? I’d say it’s a trial balloon for the 2014 elections. It might be something to run on. And if the 2014 elections changed the face of Congress dramatically, then maybe things are possible. Nothing happens until then, though.

  3. The goal is to make money. It’s an industry whose goal is to prey on the youth – a degree seeking consumer. For educators it’s to mold a white collar minion that will go on to pine himself above those socioeconomically below them, but only if they pass the quality check on the assembly line to graduation. We’re in the business of manufacturing workers instead of allowing humans to mold themselves into dynamically unique educated beings capable of creating innovative ideas that don’t corrupt what it means to be human. Ideally, that shouldn’t cost anything but time reading, listening, sharing, discussing, and finally – and most importantly, putting mind to matter in the process of creation. Higher education today has become a factory, bits and pieces to a formula, robotic ideas, quality assurance tests, and ultimately a bar coded stamp to certify the student product is as close as possible to the student ahead of him. Obama’s plan is another means to this end, and all those who fail the QA check are doomed to join the military or apply to the many service temp jobs available at your favorite Mcdoodle place. There’s prison too. A better plan would be to empty the cup first and start over. Real flesh and blood stuff, eye to eye, while attending the great course called listening. Encourage people to master themselves, to fill the cup themselves, and to foster their own creative energies. The professor merely a conductor of their sympathy.

  4. Assessing institutions of higher education on graduation rates automatically creates powerful pressure to award degrees to students regardless of whether or not they’ve actually learned much. That is, it creates pressure to lower standards — especially if funding is on the line. The push to enroll more lower-income students only enhances that pressure, since lower-income students tend to come from more poorly-funded public schools and are therefore, on average, less prepared for a rigorous college curriculum. I see NO sign whatsoever that any aspect of this policy in any way recognizes or acknowledges this fundamental problem. So, regardless of the political feasibility of the policy, the policy is structurally unsound at the most basic level: Such policies don’t encourage any “race to the top,” they practically guarantee a race to the bottom.

  5. Rolin Moe says:

    Among many other issues, it advocates for a government-sponsored, Yelp-like data aggregation service, extolling the virtues of Netflix suggestions as emblematic of AI’s soaring potential. Yet Yelp and Netflix are criticized for their expert system algorithms (why does Saw VI keep coming up as a potential movie for me, and why does the French restaurant two communities away always get listed as the top one in my area?), with business owners comparing Yelp to the mafia, much less the theoretical/philosophical flotsam of reorganizing a societal structure and putting hundreds of millions of dollars on the output of an expert system. I have to disagree with Mike; I don’t see how this is a step in the right direction. It’s a step in a direction, but I can’t put a value on it, and certainly not a positive one.

    • Mmmm, Saw VI.
      It’s an interesting way to get colleges to improve the value/cost relationship. I don’t see many cost-cutting measures following.

      • Rolin Moe says:

        The cost-cutting issue is important — states have cut funding, and the federal gov’t has stepped in to address this, first on K-12 and now seemingly for higher ed (you mentioned a comment discussing NCLB for Higher Ed; Ravitch titled her blog today the same thing). There is a need that hasn’t been met, but under our system the federal gov’t is more of an albatross than anything. Also, what happens if in 2016 a somewhat far-leaning GOPer is elected President (Perry, Paul, Rubio, Cruz)? Since the Dep’t of Ed was founded the right side of the Republican party has called for its removal from existence. Putting the eggs of higher ed policy entirely into a federal basket is a risky proposition.

      • That’s a good point, Rolin, about the limitations of federal support.
        So where will money come from? Student debt seems inescapable.

  6. I have mixed feelings about this. College costs are definitely problematic, and it seems like higher ed has not done a great job of addressing it on its own. But whether it’s a question of the institutions wanting to resist functional displacement by MOOCs and the like or whether it’s a question of societal desires driving things (like students wanting nicer housing than they will likely be able to afford for many years after graduation) remains unanswered. This proposal seems to err on the side of the former. I am not at all sure that is justified. I worry that this proposal will worsen the economic divides in higher education.

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