Obama's Higher Education Plan Looks A Lot Like No Child Left Behind

For anyone following recent trends in education policy, the proposals Obama unveiled last week came as no surprise. Speaking to an audience of college students at SUNY Binghamton, Obama cited rising tuition costs and stagnating wages as reasons for the need for reform. By tying federal funding to performance metrics, expanding the income-based student debt repayment programs, and introducing further “innovation,” Obama proposes to make education more affordable and efficient while reducing the debt burden. Although parts of the initiative could benefit students, others will have disastrous consequences for public education.

In particular, performance-based funding and an uncritical reliance on technology are likely to further impoverish colleges that serve lower-income and minority populations. As with K-12 policies like "No Child Left Behind" and "Race to the Top," performance-based funding schemes would only burden schools with an unnecessary bureaucratic apparatus which cannot effectively measure student progress.

On the White House blog earlier this month, Obama divided his proposal into three sections: "Paying for Performance," "Promoting Innovation and Competition," and "Ensuring that Student Debt Remains Affordable." Only the first two aspects outline "reforms," whereas the third suggests an expansion of an existing program.

Only the first section is substantive, containing a relatively detailed plan for changes in education funding. In addition to the development of a new ratings system that evaluates colleges based on "access," "affordability," and "outcomes," Obama calls for one billion in "Race to the Top" funding, which would reward colleges that offer the best "value." Public colleges and universities would have to develop bureaucratic mechanisms that ensure "accountability." Some funding will also be tied to individual student's progress. The second section of the proposal seems to merely echo the hype about technological innovation as a panacea for higher education's underfunding. Seeing that college administrators and legislators are generally eager to adopt MOOCs and other technologies, a federal initiative seems unnecessary.

As critics of the plan have noted, both its rhetoric and substance are riddled with Reaganist assumptions about the inefficiency and waste inherent to public institutions. We need to make sure that colleges deliver the maximum return on the taxpayers' investment, Obama suggests, and we have to keep closer tabs on these institutions in order to do so.

In reality, public institutions tend to be much more efficient than private ones. Few institutions are more wasteful than the sprawling for-profit health insurance system, whose bureaucracy accounts for some 30 percent of our healthcare costs. In contrast, colleges and universities that have remained true to their public mission tend to be remarkably cost-effective. At many community colleges, most of the tuition and state funding goes toward instruction. The notion that there is a reliable way to measure the “value” of a college education is itself misleading. Like healthcare, education is not a commodity and should not be subjected to a market logic. In K-12, "NCLB" and "Race to the Top" both mandate standardized testing as a measure of performance. Now Obama proposes to bring the same failed model to higher education by tracking graduation and transfer rates, as well as successful loan repayment.

The only positive outcome that could result from tying federal funding to these metrics is the defunding of for-profit colleges that often trick students into accumulating huge debts without setting them on a career path. However, without careful adjustments, the model could also deprive already cash-strapped community colleges of the funding they need to maintain open enrollment and serve all of those in need of an education. Though many community college students earn a terminal degree or transfer to a 4-year university, a large percentage leaves after a few terms for reasons that have little to do with the quality of education. Some students are able to find a job after taking a few courses, while others simply cannot afford to stay in school; many return after several terms or several years to continue their education. If funding is tied to graduation and transfer rates, community colleges may no longer be able to accommodate these students.

The rating model will reportedly resemble the existing College Scorecard, a government website intended to help students make better decisions about their college choice. This site provides information about tuition, average graduation rates, and average borrowing, and will rank each on a scale from “low” to “high.”

A quick search of the community college where I teach and a two-year for-profit college reveals the shortcomings of this system. Lane Community College (Eugene, OR) ranks "medium" on cost ($7,752/year) and borrowing, and "low" on the graduation rate. The students' loan default rate of 19.5% is higher than the 13.4% national average. Pioneer Pacific, which has several campuses in Oregon, ranks "high' on cost ($19,370/year) and borrowing, and "high" on the graduation rate. The default rate is 15.9% — slightly lower than Lane's but still above the national average. Judging by these ratings, the colleges seem to offer similar value: if Pacific's graduation rate is a sign of a superior quality of education, the higher costs may be justified. However, that is far from the truth. Though Pacific doesn't seem to engage in the predatory practices common to many for-profits, its quality of education, advising, and support is inferior to that of the community college.

Like the Scorecard, Obama's proposal is silent on the ways in which many colleges and universities already cut costs: by hiring underpaid part-time and adjunct instructors. More than 50% of today's college faculty are non-tenure-track, and in community colleges about 60% are "part-time" instructors who lack job security. Most adjuncts are experienced educators with PhDs and other advanced degrees, but their low pay and poor working conditions make it difficult to maintain a high quality of instruction. Many adjuncts must travel between two or more campuses and take on a heavy teaching load just to make ends meet. They rarely have permanent offices and often have to wait until the last minute to learn their schedule. If Obama wants to ensure that colleges provide a quality education, reducing the reliance on adjunct faculty should surely be part of the plan.

The problems with higher education will not be resolved through funding schemes or a unstrategic use of technology. The main factor that affects the quality of education is students' access to quality instruction. Instructors must be paid adequately and have the time and stability to develop course plans, conduct research, and work with students. By the same token, students should have the time and financial support to focus on their studies while in college.

For such an education to take place, colleges must be adequately and consistently funded. If Obama truly wishes to reduce the wasteful spending that does exist in higher education, he should target universities' corporate structure: six-figure executive salaries, publicity departments, and bloated athletics programs. The amount of money lost in these parts of the university is incomparable to the few federal dollars seemingly "wasted" on students who drop out or need an extra year to complete their degree. Threatening to defund both colleges and individual students if they fail to make sufficient "progress" is not the way to go.