Out With Tenured Radical: President Obama’s Plan for Higher Education

September 22, 2013, 10:54 am

Screen Shot 2013-09-22 at 10.44.21 AMIf MSNBC can have Up w/ Steve Kornacki on Sundays, and All In w/ Chris Hays Monday through Friday, why can’t there be “Out w/ Tenured Radical,” where guests get their ideas out there without being interrupted? As a bonus, there is no stale, uneaten Danish on the table! 

Today’s policy expert and guest blogger is Judith C. Brown, a historian and a former provost and vice president for Academic Affairs at Wesleyan University (aka, Zenith University, for long-time followers of this blog.) Her other posts for Tenured Radical on the economics and politics of higher education have appeared here, here, and here. Today’s discussion is an in-depth assessment of President Obama’s plan for higher education.

In his recent “Plan to Make College More Affordable,” President Obama observed last month that higher education is “the single most important investment students can make in their own futures.” Formulated in the language of business rather than of the public good or of self-discovery, the president’s remarks presaged the tone and directions of what he called an “ambitious new agenda” for higher education.

The president’s stated goal is to “combat rising college costs,” “make college more affordable,” help “students and families have the information to select schools that provide the best value,” and “take down barriers that stand in the way of competition and innovation.”  These are all laudable. But much of what Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, has disclosed about the plan thus far is highly problematic both for what it proposes and for what it omits. For this reason, criticism about it has quite rightly surfaced in recent weeks.

The criticisms are not, as Mr. Duncan has tendentiously argued, a veiled excuse for inaction. Nor are they, as he also put it, “more than a little silly.” Concerns about several of the plan’s major features have been voiced publicly by people of good will who are very knowledgeable about higher education and care deeply about it. Few, if any, have argued for maintaining the status quo. Some have expressed approval of parts of the plan while voicing skepticism about others. All are willing to engage in a timely and constructive dialogue with the president and members of his administration.

An open exchange of ideas, devoid of disparaging remarks about people with different view points is all the more important because the stakes are very high and the timeframe for productive discussion of this proposal is very short. Key parts of the plan, including those that have elicited the greatest concerns, do not need Congressional approval. The President has therefore announced his intent to implement them prior to 2015. His goal is to ensure that they are in place before he leaves office.

So, in the spirit of constructive dialogue, I’d like to begin a discussion of what there is to like, dislike, or question among the major features of the President’s plan for higher education.


  • Encourage states to maintain funding for public higher education. While family incomes have been declining, state funding per student enrollment in the last three decades has shrunk and has been the main reason for a near tripling in tuition increases at public colleges and universities. The plan proposes $1 billion in Race to the Top funding to spur public college and university reforms in states that maintain their funding for public higher education. The reforms envisioned are not spelled out, but mentioned are such presumably positive initiatives as smoothing the transitions from high school to college and from 2-year to 4-year colleges, which might improve college persistence and speedier time to completion. The overall theme is on “paying for value.” This could be terrific if there were agreement about the meaning of “value” and how to measure it. Since there have been few public conversations about either and it’s likely that there is considerable disagreement about both, this is a good idea in theory but worrisome in the practice (see the section below on determining high value).
  • Give students and their families more clear, accessible, and transparent information about institutions of higher education. The Department of Education’s relatively new Scorecard, is a good start in giving students useful information about individual institutions. The president’s plan contemplates adding to it information, such as the earnings and future degree attainment of graduates. Some of the additional information will require creating a long-overdue federal database of individual student records. In a highly mobile society, evaluating the progress towards a student’s degree or certificate completion is simply impossible without this. Yet at a time when first-time, full-time students are a shrinking proportion of the student population, and when 1/3 of students transfer, this is the incomplete basis on which the federal government collects much of its information for individual institutions. A recent study by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, for example, argues that the 6-year graduation rates we now have for individual colleges and universities significantly underestimate their success because they miss students who transfer and graduate from another institution. For those understandably worried about issues of privacy, which is the alleged reason Congress gave in 2008 for prohibiting such a database, consider that nearly half the states have already created them, that more are doing so, and that the National Student Clearinghouse, created by the student-loan industry, also has them.
  • Encourage Innovation. The plan proposes several funds to test and evaluate innovative approaches that yield better outcomes and accelerate paths towards degrees and credentials. It also proposes to reduce regulatory barriers for these experiments, many of which are undoubtedly based on new technologies and distance learning.
  • Credit Competency Not Just Seat-Time.  For several years the Western Governors University and others have been granting competency-based degrees with instruction offered primarily online to adults with relevant work experience. As online technologies make this easier, the number of such programs is growing, particularly at non-profit institutions that may give the for-profits a run for their money. I am receptive to this idea in the president’s proposal, especially, but not only, for adult students, who need a flexible schedule and a very targeted program. Yet I worry about the quality of the education being offered. Without assessments from impartial sources, how do we measure competency in any particular skill or area of knowledge? This question, of course, applies also to seat-time credits at traditional colleges and universities, but it has even greater urgency when applied to a lot of new ventures that don’t have a long established track-record of competent graduates whose contributions in society and in the workplace are well-known in their communities.
  • Ensure that student debt is affordable: The plan suggests a variety of means to make student debt more affordable, such as providing better information about the costs of borrowing and allowing all students to repay on a sliding scale linked to their earnings and capped at 10% of their monthly income.


  • Thumbs-downDetermining High Value:  A major aim of the president’s plan is for colleges to provide “high value at low cost.” Is there anyone who wouldn’t like this? But how do we create consensus about what is “high value”? How do we achieve it? And how do we determine that we have done so?  On these points, as on many others, the plan is vague and the terms are undefined. Examples cited as measures that determine value are “access, such as the percentage of students receiving Pell grants; affordability, such as average tuition, scholarships, and loan debt; and outcomes, such as graduation and transfer rates, graduate earnings, and advanced degrees of college graduates.” While earnings are mentioned, learning is not. Of course we would like to see college graduates do well in the job market and be able to provide for themselves and their families, but in determining the worth of college should we value the work of investment bankers more than that of Peace Corps volunteers and public service workers? And while we want to see high college completion rates, unless college graduation is linked to learning, the higher education system will only replicate the well-known failures of the K-12 system, especially as we face a growing number of students entering higher education unable to perform at 12th grade level despite their high school degrees, as we see a marked decline since the 1970s in college students’ study time, and as a variety of assessment tools raise questions about many students’ lack of progress in critical thinking and other skills while in college.
  • A College Rating System: A central feature of the president’s plan is to create a new college rating system that would “measure college performance” based on the above criteria. Congress would then link federal student aid to this rating system, rewarding institutions with high ratings and enabling students to maximize the federal aid they receive by “selecting schools that provide the best value.” Giving students and their families accurate information about individual colleges and universities is commendable. Organizing this information into a rating system, even one that organizes the ratings into sectors with similar missions is highly problematic. And linking the amount of federal financial aid that a working-class student receives to the rating of the eligible institution rather than simply to the student’s eligibility and financial need is unethical. Admittedly, a college rating system is not a ranking system, like the one produced by US News & World report. Nonetheless, it’s a dubious enterprise because it requires making relatively arbitrary judgments and assigning arbitrary weights to the features of a college. Would the rating advantage from enrolling a higher proportion of Pell Grant students be partially lost by a concomitant lower graduation rate and if so, by how much? There is much to be gained by producing reasonably accurate information on many key institutional variables and by making this information easily accessible to prospective students so that they, not the federal government, could make the comparisons on the basis of their own values and constraints. There is much to be lost, however, by squeezing this information into a rating system that would perforce be arbitrary, particularly one that would penalize the least mobile and most vulnerable students, those needing federal financial aid, because of the alleged institutional shortcomings of the only college they may be able to attend.

Within the constraints of the president’s plan, which as its name indicates, is a “Plan to Make College More Affordable and A Better Bargain for the Middle Class,” these are the most important issues. The plan does not seek to address the broader functions of higher education, which in a rapidly changing democracy and economy include the development of more informed and articulate members of society and the cultivation of learning as a life-long activity that enhances both the lives of individuals and of their communities.

In order to change higher education from a status quo that society is increasingly unwilling to support, we need to have a discussion of these broader issues because it is only in that context that we can determine what is of high value, what we are willing to do to attain it, and how much we are willing to pay for it. A productive and meaningful conversation must be broader and deeper, with a richness of detail and specifics that the president’s outline of a plan does not yet provide and with a framework that is more flexible than the one he presented.

The president’s higher education team intends to engage in discussions with higher education stakeholders in the next few months. Despite a poor start at listening, Secretary Duncan remarked, “we’re beginning this work with a great sense of humility.” We must take him at his word and hold him to it. Whether particular features of the plan will be implemented, changed, or discarded will depend not only on his willingness to listen, but what members of the higher education community say in those discussions. So read the Department of Education’s fact-sheet about the plan, write your thoughts about it to the Department of Education and the White House, and talk about it with the leadership of your institution and of higher education organizations. This is the time. A lot depends on it.

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