Obama’s plan for higher education is drawing mixed reviews and mostly negative responses from the higher education community. Let’s take apart some of the criticisms, evaluate the responses, and add our own observations. It’s a complicated plan with conflicting goals, so this is a tricky proposition.
Goal One – Give the students more information. Obama proposed providing students with more information about a school, including graduation rates, debt level, and graduate earnings. They will be able to compare colleges based on this information.
I’m a big believer in providing information to students. The more data the better. If a student is going to spend thousands of dollars on a BS in cytotechnology or an AA degree in stenography, they should know how long it takes students to get through the program and whether or not local employers hire people with those degrees. I can’t imagine that having access to that information would hurt a student. They should be able to compare college A and college B to see which school will provide them the most useful degree and at the smallest cost.
Not only is that information useful to the student, but it’s the responsible way to behave in a democracy. If the federal government supports a school with taxpayer money, then the public has the right to know where their tax money goes.
The question is whether or not the Obama administration will provide access to the right data and whether or not they will have access to the correct information. How do you track down each of the million of graduates from colleges and get an accurate salary figure? Colleges don’t have a big enough bureaucracy to track down that information. Will the federal government do that? How?
Goal Two – Increase the number of low income kids in college. Obama says that he wants to reward schools that enroll a greater number of students with Pell grants.
Lower income students have a very difficult time getting through college for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the best matrix for success is the graduation rate for low income students. This would encourage college to provide extra support for this population.
Goal Three – Lower the cost of college and keep student loans in control. Lowering the cost of education was a big part of his speech in Buffalo. He said,
“Over the past three decades, the average tuition at a public four-year college has gone up by more than 250 percent — 250 percent. Now, a typical family’s income has only gone up 16 percent. So think about that — tuition has gone up 250 percent; income gone up 16 percent. That’s a big gap. “
He would like to lower the cost of college by enabling students to be better shoppers. Private colleges will be forced to lower their tuition to compete for students. He also proposed supporting online education and high school partnerships, which are all designed to reduce time in the classroom.
Colleges point out that the cost of tuition has risen, because the support for colleges from states has shrunk. They point to drastic cuts in staff and services over the years. Critics say that tuition money is subsidizing graduate programs, non-teaching faculty and staff, and sports facilities. I’m not sure who’s to blame, but I can tell you that cost of a college will be the number one determining factor in how a choose a college for my son in four years.
Possible unintended consequences one – Impact on the community. Colleges do more than educate kids. They also provide thousands of jobs and millions of dollars to local communities. Local people provide food service, cleaning, landscaping, law enforcement, and transportation. Many colleges are located in towns or cities where the old industry has faded. Many colleges are the biggest employers in certain towns. If those colleges see a decline in enrollment, then the local economy will suffer. In some ways, the student loan service is really a form of geographic redistribution. It keeps some struggling cities and towns in business.
Possible unintended consequence two – Decrease the quality of education. Colleges are not set up to be employment centers. Professors are trained to teach subjects that they love – literature, fashion, art, and philosophy. Some professors have never been employed outside of a university and have no idea what happens to their students after graduation. This mission of employment is entirely outside their experience and expertise.
If colleges are forced to demonstrate that a degree in philosophy will lead to high-powered job, then they might stop offering that major entirely. If they are forced to show high graduation rates, they may lower the standards for their classes.
Possible unintended consequence three – Increase the number of non-tenure track employees. If colleges have to lower costs for schools, they might choose to make the biggest cuts in faculty.
What I think should be done. Over the years, I’ve seen some kids get chewed up by the system of higher education. They aren’t middle class kids with good test scores. Those kids are immersed in a college-rich environment. They get tons of information from their peers and their parents. They have the knowledge and the ability to choose among schools, pick good majors, get aid packages and make good decisions. Poor kids are having enough trouble navigating bad public schools, so higher education is a far off dream for most.
The ones who I see making expensive mistakes are working class kids, who are the first generation to attend schools. They aren’t chosing between Williams and Dartmouth. They aren’t even deciding between Rutgers and the University of Virginia. They aren’t interested in attended schools far from home, either because they can’t afford it or because they don’t want to leave their local community.
And this is personal, because some of working class kids who are making mistakes are my cousins or Steve’s.
They aren’t majoring in the liberal arts. They are choosing majors that they think will get them a middle class job. They spend six years or more in school getting a degree in elementary school education, and they end up substituting twice a week for three years. Later, they take a job in Target. Or they spend thousands of dollars at a private school getting a degree in dental hygienics, when the local community college offers the same degree at half the price. They think that private schools are better. They transfer multiple times. They don’t know how to study and get bad grades. They get little support at their schools. Their advisors are over-worked professors, not career specialists.
I think that those kids would be best served by improving the quality of college counselors at the high school level. These kids aren’t going to know how to navigate the data storm on the government websites. They need tough love when they start considering colleges in their junior year of high school. Maybe they always dreamed about being a first grade teacher, but if the population is declining in their community, then they either need to move or choose a different dream.
A good college couselor can provide the service that middle class parents ruitinely do on their own. They help these kids sift through information and tell them about the long term headache of student loans. They can provide them with realistic career goals.
At the college level, administrtive staff must guide the student through college to help them finish in four years. College professors are not trained for this job, and it’s a really important job.