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Mr. President: Don’t Cave to the Higher-Education Lobby

Over all, I’m a fan of President Obama’s proposal to rate colleges and link the results to financial aid. The plan is to give students attending institutions rated high—on such measures as tuition and graduation rates, debt and earnings of graduates, and the percentage of low-income students enrolled—larger grants, as well as lower-interest loans. The proposal ends the “tinkering” that most higher-education reform has pursued; it aims squarely at the main drivers of college costs: private and for-profit institutions (and their happy followers, the elite public flagships) and states.

That is the approach my colleagues and I argued for in a recent paper for the American Enterprise Institute. “Recent national opinion polls indicate that 74 percent of Americans believe that higher education is unaffordable, and 92 percent of college presidents agree,” we noted. “While analysts have offered several potential explanations for this perception, one has not garnered much attention: The lack of perceived affordability may stem from the financial aid system’s strong focus on the behaviors of ‘student-consumers’ rather than education providers.” Several recent policy papers from HCM Strategists, Education Trust, New America, and others have taken a similar line.

Instead of merely tying accountability to campus aid (a paltry sum), this time Obama seems to be talking about all of the programs authorized under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, such as Pell Grants, federal Supplemental Educational Grants, Perkins Loans, and Federal Subsidized and Unsubsidized Direct Loans. He’d better be, since if he simply aims at the Pell Grant, he’ll be taking on the only need-based entitlement program that does heavy lifting. Colleges that won’t commit to providing accessible, affordable, high-quality postsecondary education should not be receiving federal Title IV funds, period.

The devil, as always, is in the details. I’m very, very wary of poorly designed accountability metrics. In elementary and secondary education, these have been a disaster, because they aim at teachers (whose performance is as much a symptom of context as a cause of outcomes), they focus on standardized tests associated with a narrow set of educational intentions, and they are focused only on public schools. That’s absurd. In contrast, higher-education accountability should be aimed at decision makers (administrators and states); and measures like how many students complete programs and degrees should be directed at all institutions receiving Title IV via their students. Don’t forget that American higher education is dominated in its rhetoric and the “standards” it sets by private institutions, which have knowingly helped the public false equate cost with quality and selectivity with “good schooling.” Clearly a different metric is required.

Obama needs to unmask the devil here, ripping off the shield behind which institutions hide. If expensive schools are so “worthwhile,” then they should be able to admit the kinds of students that public universities admit, rather than creaming off the top. If their expenses are so merited, we should see bigger gains at private elites than at we do at less-expensive institutions, not just higher graduation rates. None of that is happening now.

Obama needs to call out the bad actors in public higher education too—those institutions that fancy themselves private and, in doing so, discourage social mobility for those who need it most. His decision to stand at a New York State public institution today rather than at the quasi-private University of Michigan at Ann Arbor is a good one. He is standing to protect those comprehensive state public universities and their students.

Now, what I’m unimpressed by is that Obama felt the need to take a sideswipe at Pell recipients when releasing his plans. Why is he suggesting that we need to stretch out the disbursement of Pell Grants across the semester when there is not a shred of evidence to suggest that this is necessary, effective, or even possible for colleges to do without raising costs? I can think of just one source of this idea, a project dubbed “Aid Like a Paycheck” from the Institute for College Access and Success and MDRC, a research group. It’s really sad if Obama has been pitched this idea based on two small case studies at two exceptional California community colleges.

Look at Twitter today. Students are desperate for their “Fafsa dollars” to arrive so they can pay their bills. College costs must be paid upfront, so aid must be awarded that way too. Financial-aid officers have enough on their plates already; they don’t need to deal with multiple payments. And, most important, the mythical Pell recipients who supposedly take their aid and transfer only to get a second Pell are about as real as President Reagan’s  welfare queens in limos. You don’t need to drink that Kool-Aid and attack poor students, Mr. President: Take on the hard work of getting American higher education focused on the needs of students rather than the needs of institutions.

You can do it, and we Americans will back you every step of the way, as long as you do not cave to the private higher-education lobby. Do that, and this was all for nothing.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is an associate professor of educational-policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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