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.
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?