Thoughts on the Obama Blueprint for Higher Education

Today President Obama unveiled his latest blueprint for the reform of higher education at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, a public institution with relatively high tuition and relatively advantaged students, and a place in the midst of a dispute over graduate student labor practices. It's just miles from Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, where on July 14, 2009, Obama released his American Graduation Initiative, a blueprint for transforming the nation's community colleges, which was essentially destroyed as it was caught up in political debates over the health care legislation.

The blueprint responds to the groundswell of concern about the high and ever-expanding cost of college attendance, and the corresponding growth in the costs of financial aid. It resonates with efforts by the Occupy movement, and especially with the agendas of the Lumina and Gates foundation. It's also consonant with the work of many labor economists.

On the one hand, there are many things to like here-- for example, it's about time the Administration shined a light on the fact that tuition is rising primarily because states are cutting their support to higher education. Despite some recent unfortunate remarks by Vice-President Biden, faculty salaries don't account for much of the increase in tuition. While it is the case that the salaries of SOME professors are too high, such discussions serve only to distract from the real problems-- and have the political effect of pitting educators against students. That may be convenient for administrators, or conservatives who simply want to put the predominantly liberal faculty out of work, but it isn't solving the problem of rising tuition. We shouldn't expend effort making policy based on anecdote or a few bad apples, especially when a wealth of data is staring us in the face, pointing the way.

But in many ways, what President Obama does in this blueprint is deeply problematic. First, it demonstrates his clear adherence to market-based logics of educational reform. He seems to actually believe that Race to the Top is working so well that it ought to be replicated by creating another competition in higher education. Where's the evidence to support that? Too much faith in Arne Duncan, if you ask me.

Second, the approach of tying Perkins and SEOG dollars to these new requirements has a consequence--perhaps unintended--of restricting the abilities of financial aid administrators to exercise their professional judgment in directing aid to students. These are some of the most flexible dollars at their disposal-- and some institutions have very, very few. I'm concerned that we don't yet know whether the choices aid administrators make maximize the effects of these dollars in ways that will now be minimized-- and also that these frontline workers would seem to have little control over the institutional and state actions needed to ensure the dollars keep coming in. In other words, aid officers may have fewer flexible dollars to work with now, but no additional control over how their universities set tuition.

I'm happy to see some money to promote the adoption of practices that can increase productivity in higher education, but as Doug Harris and I have pointed out, the evidence-base on which to make judgements about cost-effectiveness of programs is very, very thin. So I'm very disappointed that this program didn't begin by first endowing the Institute for Education Sciences with the resources needed to establish multiple higher education research centers, and task them (in part) with evaluating effects of this effort.

Also, given that some of these approaches to enhanced productivity have negative effects for faculty worklife, it would have been good for Obama to at minimum urge policymakers to avoid pitting students against their educators-- as they have in criticizing teachers' unions-- and instead be cognizant that students and professors have many common interests, and those should be emphasized. I predict that next up we'll be told that faculty aren't really interested in student success, and thus can and should be replaced. Of course, no one will produce hard evidence to back that up-- and yet we'll be demonized.

When it comes to specific aid programs, it is absurd for Obama to double the American Opportunity Tax Credit without any explanation, while barely mentioning the Pell Grant. As Sandy Baum and Mike McPherson recently wrote, when "will we also debate whether government expenditures targeting low-income college students deserve much stricter scrutiny in this age of attempted austerity than government expenditures through the tax code targeting more-affluent students?"

Overall, my reaction to this proposal is a simple "Meh." (HT to Sue Dynarski) Lately Obama has come out fighting, talking about the rich and poor, and about not backing the same old policies which got us into this economic crisis in the first place. What I see in this proposal is a lot of his approach to k-12 education and it's neither radical or progressive. Sure, it resonates with the desire of moderates and conservatives (as well as so-called reformers) to hold the academy's feet to the fire, and it does talk about state responsibility. But a progressive blueprint would've referred to higher education much more strongly as a right and a public good, focused on policies that could most benefit the struggling public institutions (think community colleges and state u's-- not flagships) and left all privates out of eligibility, stressed the importance of both faculty success and student success to the definition of "quality", and instead of framing change as a "race to the top" he should have called for a "war on educational inequality."

PS. After reading my take, please consider Clare Potter's. She is spot-on, and I only wish I'd made the case as well as she did!