• July 24, 2014

4 Key Ideas in Obama's Plan to Control College Costs Bear Familiar Fingerprints

Many of the ideas embraced by President Obama in his call to control college costs have longstanding champions in major foundations and among prominent policy analysts.

The president's plan dovetails closely with the agendas of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent $472-million to remake college education in the United States, and of the Lumina Foundation, the largest private foundation devoted solely to higher education. Many features of the president's plan have been advocated, too, in the research and analysis of the New America Foundation's education-policy program.

The Gates Foundation and its major grantees have focused, for example, on the idea of tying aid for colleges to their performance, a cornerstone of the president's plan. At the state level, Gates grantees like Complete College America and Jobs for the Future have been pushing efforts to tie colleges' budgets to factors like graduation rates. And at the federal level, the foundation's Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project has supported research on using financial aid as a lever to improve student success.

Following are some of the people and groups whose imprints are seen in four key elements of President Obama's agenda.

Tying Aid to Student Performance

President Obama pledged on Thursday to "propose legislation strengthening academic-progress requirements of student-aid programs," although without specifying which ones.

While the traditional role of the student-aid system has been to provide access to college by making it more affordable, the concept of using aid in the service of completion is gaining momentum.

With its Reimagining Aid Design and Delivery project, the Gates Foundation has aimed to "spark a robust discussion about how financial aid can be used as a lever to increase student success." The project's first round of grantees, mainly higher-education associations and advocacy groups, recently offered ideas like prorating federal Pell Grants based on students' course loads. The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the consulting firm HCM Strategists favored such variation; other groups suggested offering larger Pell awards for high-performing students or providing loan forgiveness to Pell recipients who graduated on time.

A research project now assessing aid as an incentive for students' timely progress is the Performance Based Scholarship Demonstration, run in seven states by the nonprofit research group MDRC and supported primarily by the Gates Foundation. At various points during the semester, the project pays students who take a minimum course load and maintain at least a C average. The payments, on top of what students already qualify for, are meant to encourage them to focus on their studies and graduate faster, although a report this week found that while recipients showed modest gains in academic achievement, their retention rates appeared unchanged.

The president's plan also proposes that Pell Grants be disbursed gradually at some colleges, rather than in lump-sum payments at the beginning of the semester. That concept is central to the project Aid Like a Paycheck, which the Institute for College Access and Success and MDRC have tested at two community colleges, hoping that incremental sums would let working students spend more time on academics. The New America Foundation has also endorsed "smaller, more regular disbursements at low-cost institutions," to provide students with reliable income and create incentives for them to stay enrolled.

The president's proposal may resemble Aid Like a Paycheck and the New America idea, but the motivation seems different. Those groups have discussed helping low-income students balance work and college, and the president said he wanted to prevent "the waste of Pell dollars" on students who drop out.

Tying Aid to College Performance

The president's proposal to reward colleges based on a new kind of rating system, one that Mr. Obama said would favor colleges that are improving their performance and that are "helping students from all kinds of backgrounds succeed," is broader than similar ideas he has put forth before.

It's a rebuke to the influence of the kinds of prestige-focused annual rankings produced by U.S. News & World Report and perhaps a tribute to another, newer rating that he didn't mention by name, the Washington Monthly's college rankings. Those rankings, which take into account such factors as graduation rates and the proportion of financially needy students a college enrolls, embody many of the criteria Mr. Obama says will count in the government's proposed new system. The magazine, which is backed by the Lumina Foundation, began its rankings in 2005; the 2013 rankings come out on Monday.

The proposals also respond to criticism the White House received on its new College Scorecard from people who said some of the online tool's measures, like its calculation of graduation rates without taking into account students who transfer out or began at another college, don't reflect the reality of today's college-going population.

"They're acknowledging that it's a tricky task," said Zakiya Smith, a former member of the Obama administration who now works for Lumina.

Until now Mr. Obama has proposed increases in only Perkins Loan funds and Federal Work-Study money for colleges that provide "good value." The plan unveiled on Thursday proposes changes in the two major student-aid programs, promising "larger Pell Grants and more-affordable student loans" for those who attend colleges that score highest on the new rating system, which will take into account affordability, enrollment of disadvantaged students, graduation and transfer rates, and the earnings and advanced degrees of alumni.

Several organizations, including the New America Foundation, the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities, and the Institute for College Access and Success, known as Ticas, have issued proposals over the past year that call on the government to reward colleges that enroll and graduate financially needy students and to penalize those that don't.

New America proposed creating Pell Grant bonuses for four-year colleges that enroll a substantial share of low-income students and graduate at least half of their students, and for community colleges with a combined graduation and transfer rate of at least 50 percent.

The APLU's proposal, written with backing from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, warned that the idea could backfire if colleges ended up admitting fewer disadvantaged students for fear that their graduation rates would suffer. To avoid that result, the organization suggested using a "student-risk index" for colleges. Ticas, meanwhile, has championed a proposal it calls the Student Default Risk Index, which could allow the government to reward or punish colleges based on a more comprehensive measure of their student-loan defaults.

In his speech, Mr. Obama said the rating system would have to be "carefully designed to increase, not decrease, the opportunities for higher education for students who face economic or other disadvantages."

Redesigned Courses

President Obama's call for colleges to use technology to redesign their courses gathers under a single category a host of disparate ideas, each with different advocates, histories, and supporting evidence.

The idea that professors should use technology to improve teaching and reduce costs is championed perhaps most notably by the National Center for Academic Transformation and Carol A. Twigg, its president and chief executive. The center, which redesigns courses and collects evidence on their effectiveness, began in 1999 as a project of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with the support of the Pew Charitable Trusts.

Many redesigns make use of a constellation of practices called "flipping" a course, which the president's proposal mentions.

At its most basic level, flipping inverts the traditional lecture paradigm because students participate actively during class instead of listening passively. Such an approach often requires students to learn course content outside class. Professors use class time to guide learning. Some of the concept's most notable proponents include Eric Mazur, a physicist at Harvard University, and Carl E. Wieman, a recipient of a Nobel Prize in Physics who stepped down last year as a White House adviser.

Massive open online courses, or MOOCs, began as an experiment in 2008 that drew about 2,000 students. Within four years, the courses hit the mainstream. The most-prominent advocates for such courses founded or lead the principal companies that offer them: Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller, of Coursera; Sebastian Thrun, of Udacity; and Anant Agarwal, of edX.

In the public arena, Thomas L. Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, has been a fervent messenger on the promise of MOOCs.

Credence for MOOCs within academe has come from the American Council on Education, which in February endorsed five MOOCs for credit. The Georgia Institute of Technology lent them further gravitas when it announced it would offer students the opportunity to earn a master's degree in computer engineering at a steep discount by taking MOOCs it would offer through Udacity.

Evidence for the effectiveness of MOOCs remains thin, if nonexistent. Some advocates believe that the promise of MOOCs lies in adopting what is called a hybrid approach to teaching, which combines online and in-person methods.

Flipping courses, in contrast, enjoys more substantive empirical support, especially in the sciences. Some of the earliest and most-cited research was conducted by Richard R. Hake, now an emeritus professor of physics at Indiana University at Bloomington.

Competency-Based and Prior Learning

Competency-based learning and prior learning share several characteristics, but this one may be the most important: They award academic credit by bypassing the traditional credit hour, or Carnegie Unit, which has been for more than a century the organizing principle on which much of higher education is based.

Arguments against using "seat time" to measure learning have come, most prominently and recently, from Amy Laitinen, deputy director for higher education at the New America Foundation and a former policy adviser to the White House and the U.S. Department of Education.

Support for competency-based and prior learning goes back decades, and each has roots in the adult- and vocational-education movements that grew in popularity in the 1970s.

Competency-based learning allows students to learn according to their own pace. It awards credit on the basis of whether students can demonstrate proficiency in a set of skills or competencies, rather than relying on grades or time spent in class. Early adopters tended to be institutions that catered to students who were older than the traditional 18-to-24-year-old demographic.

Today, Western Governors University specializes in offering competency-based education. In April, Southern New Hampshire University became the first institution to be approved by the Department of Education to receive financial aid for students taking competency-based courses. Capella University cleared a similar hurdle this month.

Prior learning is similar. It awards students college credit for material and skills they have already mastered outside of a formal educational setting. Its adoption can be traced to the College Level Examination Program, which the College Board began administering in the late 1960s, allowing universities to award credit according to performance on a standardized test instead of a course.

Prior learning's biggest proponent is the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning, which advocates for and conducts research on the subject. The council's 2010 report, "Fueling the Race to Postsecondary Success," studied the outcomes of more than 62,000 students at 48 colleges. It found that students who took advantage of prior-learning assessments earned baccalaureate degrees at a rate nearly three times that of those who did not.

Among the first to offer credit for prior learning were Alverno College, in Milwaukee; DePaul University, in Chicago; Empire State and Excelsior Colleges, both in New York; and Thomas Edison State College, in New Jersey.


Dan Berrett, Goldie Blumenstyk, Sara Lipka, Marc Parry, and Beckie Supiano contributed to this article.


Correction (8/23/2013, 1:29 p.m.): This article originally implied incorrectly that separate proposals from the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities and from the Institute for College Access and Success were similar. While both proposals are aimed broadly at rewarding colleges for enrolling more students from disadvantaged backgrounds and serving them well, they each take a different approach. The article has been updated to reflect this correction.

subscribe today

Get the insight you need for success in academe.