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What a Real Education Policy Would Look Like

January 27, 2012, 12:18 pm

Photo Credit: Associated Press

I have repeatedly complained in this blog that the Obama administration has no education policy. Part of what is horrible about the Republican presidential field turning into a political version of  the Human Centipede is that Barack Obama, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and the Democratic party will not be challenged on four years of education non-policy. They are operating under No Child Left Behind with a policy nip here and an administrative tuck there. And now they want to extend this non-policy to higher education.

The administration has announced today that it proposes to address real problems of rising tuition, high student loan burdens, reduced access and extended time to graduation by withholding money from students who attend schools where these problems are not being addressed. Which is, of course, the state of play now, except that Obama is proposing to create a larger pot of money to withhold from institutions and systems that have not implemented neoliberalism quickly enough.  If you look at the front page of the Grey Lady today, you will see that the President and Secretary Smartypants (who Obama reassured us back in 2008 was “not picked for his basketball skills” but it appears he was not chosen for his policy-making skills either) have proposed “a financial aid overhaul that for the first time would tie colleges’ eligibility for campus-based aid programs — Perkins loans, work-study jobs and supplemental grants for low-income students — to the institutions’ success in improving affordability and value for students[.]”

Under the plan, which the president outlined on Friday morning in a speech at the University of Michigan, the amount available for Perkins loans would grow to $8 billion, from the current $1 billion. The president also wants to create a $1 billion grant competition, along the lines of the Race for the Top program for elementary and secondary education, to reward states that take action to keep college costs down, and a separate $55 million competition for individual colleges to increase their value and efficiency.

The administration also wants to give families clearer information about costs and quality, by requiring colleges and universities to offer a “shopping sheet” that makes it easier to compare financial aid packages and — for the first time — compiling post-graduate earning and employment information to give students a better sense of what awaits them.

This is all based on a discussion that Obama and Duncan had back in December with “a dozen college presidents, mostly from public institutions, and leaders of two nonprofit education organizations, about how to curb the rising cost of college and improve graduation rates.” The nonprofits were the Delta Project that does cost-benefit analysis and the Lumina Foundation whose focus is on access and affordability.  Note the groups that were not invited to the table:  the American Association of University Women, the American Association of University Professors, the major educational foundations or any presidents of the major professional organizations. In other words, the Obama administration did not invite anyone to the table who actually does research on education — only nonprofits who specialize in assessing what bang corporate America is getting for the student buck.

OK, instead of being such a Debbie Downer, and accepting the proposition that there is always room for improvement in all aspects of higher education, I will tell you what is wrong with the administration’s education non-policy.  Among other things:

  • The most onerous cost for educational institutions is health care.  A real education policy will propose to the states that they lift current regulations that prohibit private institutions from combining with each other, and with state higher education systems, to bargain for lower health insurance rates.
  • A real education policy would look at the massive endowments and tax dollars that go to college sports rather than college education.
  • A real education policy would point out that it is the mania for cutting taxes at the state level that allowed state legislatures to cut education budgets and put a higher burden on students.
  • A real education policy would point out that federal student loan policy favors private sector profits over the fiscal interest of college graduates and their parents.
  • A real education policy would not put the entire burden of simplifying the college financing process on overburdened admissions and financial aid offices.  When was the last time the President or Secretary Smartypants looked at any application document issued by the federal government or a bank, much less a student loan application?
  • A real education policy would point out that students have to take out loans because their parents’ wages, and particularly working class wages, have been dropping across the board since the 1980s.  It would also point out that this phenomenon has something to do with other neoliberal policies that have destroyed unions and sent manufacturing abroad.
  • A real education policy would talk about education for chrissakes and not be utterly and completely absorbed with taking up the time of actual educators with “assessments” and “outcomes.”
  • A real education policy would point to the crisis in academic labor as a crucial factor in students not being able to get the courses they need to fulfill their major requirements.

In fact, a real conversation about education policy would not have just had researchers, politicians and executives at the table:  there would have been consultation with students, college professors and those people who represent college professors in the professional organizations.

We educators are sick and tired of being lectured by politicians, who have never taught a student in their lives, about how the crisis in higher education is all our fault because we aren’t efficient enough and don’t work hard enough.  We are also a little sick of being told that our students can’t get jobs because we didn’t educate them correctly, or because we fill them with radical thoughts — not because the banks and the government took the economy down in their love affair with the free market, or have adopted policies to privatize and expand greedy for-profit education ventures.

Free market “lite” policies are still free market policies, Mr. President.  The cost of higher education, and access to higher education, will not be addressed until the federal government and the states come to terms with what used to be common knowledge in both political parties:  education is an investment.  It is not a for-profit enterprise.  It does not necessarily show measurable returns on that investment. It is something on which a nation agrees to lose money so that it has functioning, productive citizens down the road.

Come to think of it, they didn’t invite education bloggers to the White House either.  I wonder why?

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