…Like President Obama’s new College Affordability Plan. (For intelligent and thoughtful responses to this announcement, go to the AHA Roundtable on President Obama’s College Affordability Plan and Inside Higher Ed, August 8 2013. For an outraged polemic, keep reading.)
Like practically everything else about what passes for federal education policy today, the Obama administration’s problem-solving nibbles around the edges of the issue. There is nothing that is a genuinely new idea or even a well-recycled old idea. Reforms consist of a few small financial incentives awarded to institutions that play along, injecting a good shot of standardized testing, and giving “education consumers” information so that they can make “well-informed” decisions. For example: are you likely to get a better job if you go to Harvard or if you go to Fresno State? Should you pay more for Yale, and put your kid on the Supreme Court? Should you take out more loans for Amherst if you think it is a better “value” than San Jose State? Or vice-versa?
This is not to say that such questions do not keep Americans awake at night, but dammit Barry! The plan does not even begin to provide a real analysis of why the tuition burden of a two – year or a four-year education is so high and financial aid so dependent on loans; what power might be given to poor and middle-class people to address the burdens of high tuition; or, most importantly, reveal how much federal and state de-funding of higher education has to do with high costs.
Not surprisingly, the “plan” also does not mention:
- the relationship between a largely contingent faculty workforce and graduation rates, particularly of high-needs students;
- the relationship between executive compensation, real estate acquisition and high tuition;
- the effect that spending gajillions of dollars on an eleven-year war has had on the economy and on higher education spending;
- the relationship between a bad job market and students not getting jobs;
- the defunding of higher education begun by President Reagan and accelerated in the ensuing decades;
- the differences in what schools like Stanford, Michigan State and Western Nebraska Community College might bring to the table in the various competitions for federal funding that are laid out in the “plan”.
In fact, the President’s “plan” doesn’t distinguish between private and public institutions; four year, two year or Ph.D. granting schools; those that are tuition-driven or well-endowed. It also doesn’t mention that for profit universities are a huge part of the student debt problem. (Capella and Walden Universities are currently being investigated by the Senate; New York’s Attorney General is suing unaccredited Trump University for fraud; and Oregon filed a class-action lawsuit against the University of Phoenix in 2010 on behalf of allegedly defrauded students.)
The White House announcement also claims that “We’ve seen incredible results from President Obama’s Race to the Top program” for public secondary schools. And these incredible results are? There’s no hyperlink to a study that backs this statement up with research. Since Phase 1 winners were only announced in March 2010, and implemented for 2010-2011, it’s hard to imagine that any results — incredible or otherwise — can be reported by any but the most cynical researchers. New York state, which was awarded a Phase 2 grant in the summer of 2010, has had the incredible result of student test scores dropping dramatically this year. Initial explanations center the adoption of the Common Core’s tougher standards.
That’s incredible, isn’t it?!
Other aspects of the plan include urge colleges to be active in “enrolling and graduating relatively higher numbers of Pell-eligible students.” For bonus points, there is a stern lecture from Arne Duncan about the importance of giving “good value to students and families: offering quality education and training that prepares graduates to obtain employment and repay their loans.”
Here is another beaut: “The President is also proposing to begin collecting earnings and employment information for colleges and universities, so that students can have an even better sense of the life they’ll be able to build once they graduate.” Students would learn, for example, that if they attend Zenith University they could have a well-paid life as a rock musician, a governor of Colorado, or an Oscar-winning screen-writer. Then they could at least have the information they need to decide whether to go to Zenith or to the local community college. The President has “called on Congress to keep interest rates low for 7.4 million young people who take advantage of student loans (If Congress doesn’t act, the interest rates for subsidized Stafford student loans will increase from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent on July 1) , make the American Opportunity Tax Credit permanent, and double the number of work-study jobs over the next five years to better assist college students who are working their way through school.”
The last time I looked, House Speaker John Boehner had called on the White House to start ordering pizzas for a government shutdown, which doesn’t make it seem like any spending on anything will happen soon, unless, of course, the President decides to bomb Syria back into the stone age, in which case, billions of dollars will magically appear.