Select Page

Yesterday, President Obama announced a new “Higher Ed Plan” at the University of Buffalo; he visits two campuses today in what appears to be a campaign-style rollout.

Briefly, here are the plan’s elements as summarized by Inside Higher Ed:

–Create a new rating system for colleges in which they would be evaluated based on various outcomes (such as graduation rates and graduate earnings), on affordability and on access (measures such as the percentage of students receiving Pell Grants).
–Link student aid to these ratings, such that students who enroll at high performing colleges would receive larger Pell Grants and more favorable rates on student loans.
–Create a new program that would give colleges a “bonus” if they enroll large numbers of students eligible for Pell Grants.
–Toughen requirements on students receiving aid. For example, the president said that these rules might require completion of a certain percentage of classes to continue receiving aid.

Our immediate response is that the use of “ratings systems” and funding links to them looks a lot like the K-12 “reforms” of No Child Left Behind (NCBL) and its Obama Administration successor, Race to the Top. NCBL’s approach has now received almost universal derision as it has both failed to improve those measured subjects over a wide spectrum of schools, and has had unintended consequences on curriculum and extracurriculars across the country. One of the most vocal critics of NCLB and its unintended consequences is Diane Ravitch, a former Assistant Secretary of Education under President Bush.

One has to worry about similar effects in higher education if Obama’s reform plan is implemented. Like No Child Left Behind, Obama’s plan will choose winners and losers, giving larger Pell Grant packages and financial aid incentives to students attending “better” schools while leaving the “lower-ranked” universities behind.

The notion of toughening requirements for receiving aid continues the Administration’s push of a completion agenda – getting a degree seems the concern, not getting an education. For PASSHE students, Pell grant restrictions were felt already when the Administration cut the number of semesters of eligibility last year (along with cutting funding for summer courses), forcing significant numbers of PASSHE students to not return for junior or senior years.

Finally, it should be constantly noted that for approximately $12 billion, the federal government could cover the tuition of every public university and community college student in the country – making access available to everyone for “free” (ignoring the tax burden involved). That seems like a more working-family-friendly plan, but instead Obama’s plan looks like a series of partial measures reshuffling the same money to the detriment of some universities and some students, and continuing the high-aid, high-tuition, high-debt model of funding higher education.


Steve Hicks