Reality Check: Obama is Standing for Students

August 27, 2013 | Blog

Since when did an effort to ensure that students receive a high-quality affordable education in exchange for their financial aid become unconstitutional micromanagement of colleges and universities?

This is where the rubber hits the road, folks. Where the needs of a particularly elite form of academia comes into conflict with the average student’s right to an affordable public education. And apparently it’s about to get ugly. 
Don’t believe the hype. President Obama is not attacking faculty, he is not seeking to destroy public colleges and universities which are the workhorses of higher education, and for pete’s sake he is not proposing a pseudo-NCLB for higher education.
The President’s main goal is simple:  After decades of hoping that students could hold institutions of higher education and states responsible for providing a high-quality, affordable college experience that leads to degrees, he’s calling the nation’s attention to the fact that the market isn’t working on its own and some really serious regulation is needed.  The federal government is a major financial player in higher education, far more so than in k-12, and it has a responsibility to ensure that the schools it funds do right by their students.  
Despite their loud claims to the contrary, many schools are not currently doing right by their students. Some of them are setting prices so as to absorb all available financial aid and providing students with few supports and long-shots at completing degrees. Others are taking advantage of the availability of student loans to charge the middle-class sky high prices while hiding behind “admissions standards” to leave the majority of students from the 99% out in the cold.  In addition, there are a lot of federal dollars spent unnecessarily, supplanting resources from institutional endowments. Finally, there are plenty of childish states, pulling back on their investments when the federal government provides support. 
All of that should be stopped by holding colleges, universities, and states to the standards that we now hold students.  The problems we face in higher education today are largely due to the behaviors of those institutional actors–not students.  The federal government must use the strings associated with Title IV to ensure that college administrators, boards, and state legislatures behave themselves and let the students and faculty get back to the hard work of education.
That’s the goal. It’s where Obama is headed, if you’ll just give him a chance to get there.
And when he does: NO, this will not make student aid more complicated.  Instead of rules for millions of students we can have a much smaller set of rules for the few thousand institutions. Done right, this will not punish students for the acts of their states and institutions. It will not further push education towards earnings and away from learning.  It should do the opposite– it focuses on the actual problem– schools that claim to educate students while merely sifting and winnowing out the ones it doesn’t want, schools that recruit students only to leave them behind once checks are signed. It helps direct students towards the states and institutions where their aid will be used well.  It helps ensure that students get degrees–which is the very least they deserve (and come on, don’t tell me that in your day you really earned your degree…).
Suggesting the opposite– suggesting that this effort will hurt students– is a red herring. It’s a line tossed about by privileged elites who have claimed to serve America’s middle class while restricting enrollment through selective admissions, and promoting rhetoric that allows some elite colleges to stand on high above their peers, endlessly wealthy and exerting strong influence, helping to push millions of Americans into debt. 
Beware of these scare tactics. The President isn’t going to cut students’ Pell dollars. He’s never going to assign letters grades to each colleges and university.  He’s not bringing in standardized tests or value-added modeling for professors, or giving colleges incentives to get rid of teacher tenure or privatize.
Unfortunately, he’s also not about to make college–or at least community college– free.  Now there’s something worth critiquing him for.
Sure, the President did make some errors in his plans. He should never have likened this effort to the ridiculous College Scorecard or called them “ratings”– that trivialized the approach.  He should have challenged schools to improve to certain standards before the move to link aid to institutional performance rolls out.  Race to the Top should never have been a part of this at all, since doing this fast has never been a good way to bring about quality change. He should never have mentioned MOOCs or other such untested approaches to cutting costs, and in fact, he needn’t have mentioned specific practices for cost-cutting at all.  That can and should be left up to the institutions to deal with– he simply needs to tell them what goal posts to aim for and what the rules of engagement are.   For example, he should have reiterated the importance of educators to education, and assured the faculty of their very real place in affordable higher education. He should have placed much more emphasis on the importance of public institutions and the role that states must play in adequately funding them if those states want to get any Title IV funds for their private or profit schools.   
Shoulda, woulda, coulda.  The fact is that the current financial aid system has benefitted colleges and universities– and states– far more than students for a very long time, and President Obama is finally going to try to do something about it.  Did he get the plan exactly right on this initial roll out?  Nope. Will it be accomplished in the next few years? No way.   But that isn’t and wasn’t the point.  He is standing up for students and families and telling higher education administrators and states that they must get some skin in the game– or get out of Title IV.   It’s about damn time. 

1 Comment

  1. Reply

    Michael Meranze

    September 1, 2013

    I'm sorry but this is wrong in so many ways. The fact that you are reduced to announcing "would, coulda, shoulda" is only the first sign. If Obama's plan does, as you indicate, mistate all sorts of problems and neglects other, then it needs to be criticized not bought into. The notion that the system that he is opposing is a bad one and therefore it is "ugly" to oppose his is the way to justify all sorts of bad policy. Frankly by ignoring the larger need to press to address the contingent faculty issue, to strive to lower interest payments on loans to cost, and to cap repayment or do something about bankruptcy laws Obama's program raises all sorts of questions about whether he is on the "side of students"--let alone his trying to link degrees to earnings in an economy that is still in recession. That his plan ignores the social restraints on student choices by potentially limiting support if they don't pick higher ranked colleges--even though they may be forced to go to local institutions because of their own needs is simply another sign that this is based on the fantasy that everyone is simply a rational agent responding to market cues and they should be punished if they don't take the "nudge" as Cass sunstein would say. I understand that you are motivated to address the problem. But that doesn't mean we have to accept a problematic solution.


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