Reforming Higher Education

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.

19 Thoughts on “Reforming Higher Education

  1. Great post. Another way of thinking about it is that “college readiness” at the HS (and previous) level is too often mindless cheerleading and encouragement to graduate high school and go to college, not to navigate which college is the best match.

  2. Picking a college is a weird experience. We ended up sticking with a state school for cost reasons but we were also looking at where Geeky Boy could get in. And this is the issue many kids face. if you don’t have perfect SAT scores and straight As and a million extras, which is 95% of the students out there, it’s really hard to tell what you can and can’t get into. I was talking to a woman who has a son at a private school nearby. She is claiming that he can’t get into certain schools because he’s a B student. I’m skeptical. I think she believes the hype. I mean, no, he’s not getting into Swarthmore, but he might be able to get into Haverford. They’re less limited by cost, but they’re still functioning with distorted information.

    Your working class student is in the same boat, usually. They’re limited by where they can get in, how far away they can go, and the cost. My stepmother’s niece (my step-niece?) is going to a new 4-year school in my hometown getting her degree in nursing. Her boyfriend in business. She has a better chance than he does at getting a job. My sister-in-law (same town) has been trying to get a teaching job for 3 or 4 years (she’s been a teacher’s aid which pays something like $9/hr.). Her original degree was in interior design. She went back to school to get her teaching degree. Her investment has not paid off at all. I think students have a really hard time picking either a school or a major. A smart kid is going to usually do well regardless of major (and sometimes even of school). They have the soft skills–writing, critical thinking, working with others–that get them in the door and get them promoted. The struggling kids will pick either an “easy” major or a “hot” major. And it often doesn’t work out.

    What’s the answer? More information for sure. More counselors in schools who will guide students and their parents. More accountability for schools that charge $50k/year and aren’t even ranked. What is up with that? For-profit schools need some serious overhaul. And states need to up their support. As you say, it will benefit the state’s economy.

    Sorry that went on for so long. I’ve been thinking about this since the speech–and for obvious personal reasons.

  3. 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.

    This is the same argument you gave against stricter regulation of Wall Street — that such regulation would hurt the janitors and secretaries. But there are better ways to subsidize rural midwestern janitors than the way we subsidize student loans, if that is our goal.

  4. I think that the college education issue is very different for people in different situations (including preparation, grades, income, communities) and that there’s a strong predisposition for the elite (who benefited tremendously from education, and potentially those of us who benefited tremendously from subsidized education) to think that education will be the panacea. I think that the poor need more support, but am wary of believing that it’s going to be effective at the college level. For me, the focus on getting education to the poor (and poorly prepared) should be on K-12 and community college. I would provide more direct aide to those institutions and then provide student loans while requiring schools to assume some of the debt burden for students who default on their student loans, eventually restricting access to loans to those schools.

    And, yes, this would decrease access for the poor/less prepared students, but I would shunt those to programs in community colleges/K-12 schools, where classes would still be offered at low cost and where counseling services could be beefed up (and leave out the college experience).

    • “For me, the focus on getting education to the poor (and poorly prepared) should be on K-12 and community college.”

      Yes. I’d add that K-12 schools have physical custody of students in a way that colleges can’t hope to–a lot of community college students appear in class very sporadically. There’s a legal obligation to appear in class up to a certain age in K-12. (The downside of that is that there are a lot of warm bodies in K-12 classrooms that do not want to be there, of course, which complicates the pedagogical process.)

      It doesn’t make any sense to think that somebody who can’t learn in a highly structured educational environment like K-12 is going to soar like an eagle a few months later on a 4-year college campus where nobody is taking attendance in huge lecture courses, nobody is checking homework, and grades are based on a handful of tests. I think that students can mature into being able to do that (for instance after military service or parenthood or years in the workforce), but the 17-year-old who is just barely managing high school work is going to turn into the 18-year-old who barely makes an appearance at their college classes, crashes and burns on exams, and then leaves without a degree, but with debt.

      “…requiring schools to assume some of the debt burden for students who default on their student loans,”

      Yes–I like the idea of an 80/20 loan (on the analogy of some home mortgages) if the federal government is going to be backing the loans–80% standard loans, 20% carried by the colleges, all forgivable in bankruptcy.

      As to the moral hazard of forgiving student loans, I would create a national registry of student loan defaulters that can be accessed by all comers–customers, prospective employers, romantic prospects, etc. I personally would not touch a doctor, lawyer, dentist, or accountant who had defaulted on student loans, and I’m sure many others feel the same way.

      • I just remembered something about bankruptcy.

        Bankruptcy has changed A LOT since the panic some decades ago that high-earning professionals were going to escape student loans via bankruptcy and live la dolce vita. Bankruptcy never was that easy, but these days, the legal environment is quite different. I don’t know the legal categories, but I listen to a lot of hard luck personal finance radio, and as I understand it, low earners can walk away from debt fairly cleanly, while high earners generally have to put on a sort of financial strait jacket that lasts until their debt is taken care of to the satisfaction of the court via a multi-year repayment plan.

        http://money.howstuffworks.com/personal-finance/debt-management/chapters-bankruptcy.htm

  5. Lisa SG on August 24, 2013 at 4:08 pm said:

    bj…you think that’s the solution to class stratification? To throw up our hands and do nothing? Yes, by all means, let’s decrease college access for the poor in a society where there are fewer and fewer opportunities to move from one class to the next, while ensuring that government funds continue to flow into the schools that service the wealthy and use their funds freed up by the pell grants that are received by a miniscule percentage of their students to subsidize atheletes and upper middle class students who otherwise might go elsewhere.

    • Here’s an oddity, though–this “class stratification” proceeds at the same time that more and more young people are attending college and getting pieces of paper. It’s almost as if college is not actually the solution to class stratification…

      I think there needs to be much more attention to what students are getting out of college, as opposed to the pieces of paper. Thinking entirely in terms of degrees is a mistake, and students (particularly low income students who have less time and less money to invest) may need a much more individualized, skill-based approach to maximize the impact of what time and money they have.

      Also, bear in mind that one of the functions of expensive colleges for upper middle class students is to serve as a safe, comfy babysitting service with fun distractions to keep the kids out of trouble. (Last night, I just had an excellent dinner at an eye-poppingly fancy new college dining hall and there are going to be a bakery and a frozen yogurt place soon. It was fantastic and I’m sure very expensive to run, but eating nice cafeteria meals doesn’t make a whisker of difference in helping employability or class mobility.)

  6. Lisa SG on August 24, 2013 at 4:18 pm said:

    Except for the extra funds given to schools that enroll lots of pell grant receipients, this plan seems like the Bush elementary and secondary ed plan repeated. The schools that are disadvantaged already will become more disadvantaged as they are punished for their disadvantages by receiving less money. The schools that are disadvantaged need MORE money, not less. The schools with poor 6-year graduation rates have those poor rates partly because students work and partly because the students have to take semesters of remedial coursework. You can say that this should be fixed at the secondary level, but it HASN’T BEEN and it is not going to be fixed any time soon–do you see what’s happening in Philadelphia where the schools are basically being shut down because the governor refuses to provide funding? These are real people’s lives–making them give up things they already have while promising something you may never and possibly cannot deliver is unacceptable.

    • “The schools with poor 6-year graduation rates have those poor rates partly because students work and partly because the students have to take semesters of remedial coursework.”

      Yes.

      I think Obama’s educational history (private and elite schools all the way) probably leads him astray. He just doesn’t have the background to understand why so many students take so long to get through school. I don’t think a President Palin would have made this particular mistake, as she herself took quite a while to get through college.

      (State schools that offer required courses only sporadically are at fault, though, particularly in places like California.)

      “You can say that this should be fixed at the secondary level, but it HASN’T BEEN and it is not going to be fixed any time soon–do you see what’s happening in Philadelphia where the schools are basically being shut down because the governor refuses to provide funding? These are real people’s lives–making them give up things they already have while promising something you may never and possibly cannot deliver is unacceptable.”

      bj did mention community college.

  7. Yes, community college, and services for post-18 year olds offered at K-12, and maintaining affordability at the state school level. I don’t want to fall in the trap of saying this is a really difficult problem, let’s do nothing. I do understand how complaints about programs that exist can undermine the effort to do anything and it’s a serious worry. If some kids get a chance with the current student loan scheme, and, say, we replace it with nothing, we undermine those kids. It’s also dangerous to let anecdotal stories you hear anywhere overly influence one’s decision making.

    And, I am currently in the trap of being freaked out by the financial aid forums at College Confidential, where naive 16 year olds write things like “I have to go to UCSB because it’s my last chance to have fun before I have settle down to the grind of working. How do I get money to pay for out of state tuition there?” My main issue with the current system is that I think it’s aid to colleges (not students) that is then shouldered by the student (and not the general population). I think we should give aid to colleges directly (and burden the taxpayer, not the student), not just get rid of aid.

  8. “And, I am currently in the trap of being freaked out by the financial aid forums at College Confidential, where naive 16 year olds write things like “I have to go to UCSB because it’s my last chance to have fun before I have settle down to the grind of working. How do I get money to pay for out of state tuition there?””

    That’s really funny and sad. You can see very explicitly in that remark how the educational function of college and the recreational/consumer goods function get twisted up in a complicated way. (As I’ve mentioned before, even back in the early 90s, there was a University of Southern California t-shirt proudly proclaiming that USC was a 4-year party with a $100,000 cover charge. Also, I’ve mentioned before, I have two young cousins who went to school in Colorado just for the skiing. Really.)

    I’d be half tempted to tell that kid to 1) go the Cheap State U 2) take out a credit card, borrow $5k and have a blast with it. A single person can have an awfully good time with $5k. That’s way cheaper his or her current plan.

  9. cranberry on August 26, 2013 at 11:11 am said:

    I think graduate earnings means very little, unless you know a great deal about the students. The Colorado School of Mines would score very well on that metric. A college which offers a popular degree in social work would not fare as well. Both may be doing very well by their students.

    Better high school college counseling would help, but how do you get the info to the students? Many public systems are ruled by seniority. Nothing will change in some departments until someone retires; the next head counselor’s not necessarily much younger, nor better informed.

    Given a choice, many superintendents will opt to invest in increasing test scores for the struggling, rather than improving advising for the college bound.

    Perhaps online programs could help reach students. The Virtual High School Collaborative offers summer courses in the college application process. Funding to make the course ( or one like it) available nationally, and year-round, could help close the gap.

    https://my.vhslearning.org/PublicCourseDescription.aspx?c=172

    However, in my opinion, the field suffers from too much information. The Paradox of Choice, as Barry Schwartz has described the issue. Speaking to friends’ children who are applying to colleges in Europe, they seem to have a choice of some 5 public colleges, determined by test scores. Five, not thousands.

    That runs counter to the American feeling that more options, and more information, is always better. However, what if rising seniors were limited to five public colleges, of which they were guaranteed admission to one? They could choose to apply to private colleges and out-of-state publics, but they would have a limited set of default options.

    It might do something to restrain the present insanity of every college attempting to increase its pool of applicants. That process makes everyone paranoid, when reliable, but not previously super-selective colleges report plummeting admission rates. It might also cut down on the number of students feeling forced to go to out of state public universities, because they only apply to the state flagship, but not other good local options.

  10. My two roles here — just drove my son to the PA school of his choice, that even with 50% merit aid will cost twice the mortgage every month for the next 4 years, and am wondering if we didn’t scrutinize the wrestling schedule more than the math. What if he runs out of math classes as he goes with with multi-variable calculus as his entry-level course? Did we do the right research?
    And then I look at my online composition classes opening this morning and wonder how can I get past the 70% retention. Is it even possible? How many signed up for 2 or more online classes? While they’re working full-time? And our Pell money is going to depend on retaining them? Passing them? Really?
    I don’t know — here’s where I was yesterday:
    “The creation of so called report cards based on graduation rates and earnings of graduates from colleges that serve diverse student populations will result in a race to the bottom, driving public universities and non-elite private universities to standardize their curricula to insure they get a passing grade. For millions of working class and middle class students, particularly students of color, the President’s plan will result in a decline in the quality of higher education, in the name of increasing graduation rates.”

    http://www.aaup.org/news/statement-president’s-proposal-performance-based-funding

  11. “However, what if rising seniors were limited to five public colleges, of which they were guaranteed admission to one?”

    Didn’t it use to be like that, with the state systems being an option for every graduating senior, and a cost that could be funded by working (potentially part time, or during the summers) and a bit of parental help and living at home? Mind you, maybe that only worked for the “middle class” and young and not the poor (who may be living in homes where no one is working), and so I’m setting up a false equivalence to the ever expanding groups for whom we are expecting education to be the salvation to our changing economic society.

    BTW, I want to see schools lose the ability to saddle their students with school debt unless those students will be able to pay off that debt. I’m not nearly as concerned about the Pell grants, though I might want to make those Pell grants dependent on the cost of the school (so say, tuition wouldn’t be more than the cost of pell + some form of part-time job), which I know would have some ripple effects I wouldn’t be perfectly happy with.

  12. Shannon on August 26, 2013 at 5:34 pm said:

    A little late to commenting on this one, but wanted to chime in on this:

    “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.”

    So true. I have students in my office all the time dealing with issues which I am completely untrained to handle. For example, one of my students came in trying to figure out what to do this summer because he has aged out of the foster care system and his foster parents told him not to come back because they weren’t getting money any more. I spent hours trying to figure something out – and I’m still not sure what happened to him. Unfortunately, he probably won’t be back next semester. A lot of people believe that low college completion rates are due to poor academic preparation, but data at our non-flagship state school show that the majority of our students who don’t come back are doing fine academically. So it’s not enough to help them choose – they need support the whole way through.

    Of course, that runs into the issue of the increasing bureaucratization of higher education. The more staff and professionals we hire to help deal with this, the less money we have to spend on classroom instruction and the more we rely on adjuncts to cover the gap.

    I am not sure what the solution is, but I do know the problem is not just about finding the right match and keep the costs down.

  13. Kris, both of your stories concerns me. Tuition that is twice the mortgage freaks me out.

    Also, the story about your school and its population makes me sad. I can’t see how this model of high dropout rate/low admission standards benefits the students. They end up with debt, but no degree. It sounds like it makes the faculty frustrated, as well. I strongly believe in giving kids a second chance and having a place with low standards in higher education. But with so many failing and it having such a great cost on the individual and the tax payer, maybe we have to find a more affordable way to let kids get a second chance. Maybe this is where MOOCs could be valuable. Let the C student prove herself with a couple of MOOCs and then use the certificates as proof to a traditional college that they have matured and are ready for the pressures of college. Maybe colleges have to boot kids out who can’t manage the first semester.

  14. I’m not paying twice the mortgage, thank goodness. We’re in state, though, and it’s still costing us something out of pocket after a benefit from Mr. Geeky and student loan for Geeky Boy. Total ticket in state was around $20k, slightly more than that. And that doesn’t include books, spending money, etc.

  15. These recommendations may be based on Carolyn Hoxby and Sarah Turner’s recent large-scale field experiment that shows when you mail packets with college prep information to high achieving high schoolers (as indicated by SAT score) in poor neighborhoods (who are less likely to have good advising), they’re more likely to apply (and get in) to higher ranked schools that have better support systems (and higher graduation rates) and they get more scholarship money. Pretty much a win-win except for the rich kids that they replace (who will do just fine at the slightly less elite institutions they go to).

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