education, politics

Hopes and Fears about Obama’s Change in Higher Education

I am trying to be optimistic, and I will get there by the time the semester starts in a week and a half. But today, with the White House releasing its plan to make college more affordable, I am finding it hard. Here’s the bullet pointed version:

A Better Bargain for the Middle Class: Making College More Affordable

Paying for Performance

  • Tie financial aid to college performance, starting with publishing new college ratings before the 2015 school year.
  • Challenge states to fund public colleges based on performance.
  • Hold students and colleges receiving student aid responsible for making progress toward a degree.

Promoting Innovation and Competition

  • Challenge colleges to offer students a greater range of affordable, high-quality options than they do today.
  • Give consumers clear, transparent information on college performance to help them make the decisions that work best for them.
  • Encourage innovation by stripping away unnecessary regulations.

Ensuring that Student Debt Remains Affordable

  • Help ensure borrowers can afford their federal student loan debt by allowing all borrowers to cap their payments at 10 percent of their monthly income.
  • Reach out to struggling borrowers to ensure that they are aware of the flexible options available to help them to repay their debt.

I’ll keep my response and analysis in bullet points too, just for consistency’s sake, and to force myself to be as optimistic and and positive as possible.

Paying for Performance


  • I’d love it if there was a national refocusing on deep and broad student learning as a goal of college.
  • I’d love to see institutions that have a strong culture of supporting students who need that support rewarded for guiding first generation and vulnerable populations through higher education.


  • I fear that “performance” will be simply and narrowly defined, and that definition will be gamed by those institutions with resources and wealthy students, while those institutions without resources and full of vulnerable students will be declared “failing,” much like they are in K12.
  • I fear that despite all well-intentioned efforts to the contrary, performance will simply reward colleges for selecting and enrolling privileged students, leaving the status quo essentially unchanged. When I went to college from 1994 to 1998, I was pretty much on my own for my pivotal freshmen year. My hall RA was a stressed-out, checked-out graduate student. In most of my classes my profs took little to no interest in me as a student or as a person. Freshmen comp was taught by disgruntled outsiders. And it was all really really hard. Yet everyone around me stayed in school and graduated, in spite of the lack of support we received. I compare that to my current institution, where I know the names of each of my freshmen advisees. I met with them a few times a semester. They get to know a few of their other professors too, and while we maintain high standards, we are devoted to helping students in any way we can, through one-on-one meetings, academic advising, a supportive student life staff, and a real community. But despite this, we have found, as many schools like us, that retention often has more to do with the personal situation of the student than any level of wrap-around services we can provide.
  • Finally, rankings? Really? Rankings? Status anxiety is part of the problem, not simply a useful motivation that just needs mild diverting. I fear that concern over the details of the metrics will be shrugged off. “Yes, of course, it can’t be just a simple formula.” But the complex formula will prove to be no better. And, just like Arne Duncan’s tenure as schools chief in Chicago, or any number of K-12 education reformers, there will be a big to do about getting tough on schools that don’t perform and very little pause, reflection and sorting about the wreckage for lessons. Here is Andrew Coulson of the Cato Institute pointing out that the miraculous test scores were not. Here is Mike Klonsky making a similar point.



  • I truly hope that colleges do offer a greater range of options. Liberal arts students should get more practical education about life skills. Vocational students should see the great value of the knowledge behind physical craftsmanship, and that active citizenship requires intellectual and academic skills. People learn a lot online, and that should be integrated into higher education.
  • I also hope that high school students and their parents get the information that they want and so desperately need. Secrecy and confusion over pricing is a bad model and an ethically problematic one. I am in favor of transparency, when possible.


  • But information is nothing without trust. I fear that this information will do next to nothing to change how people make their decisions, based on status and vague networks of trust. And most students and their parents are smart enough to know that  “information about student performance” is information about students admitted by that college who chose to go to that college. This mythical “college performance” is a prediction based on who you are, not just the college.  And hopes of a sabermetric plugging in your SAT, GPA, parental income and high school and getting a “you have a 87% chance of graduating college at x school, 93% chance of getting a job, and earning $34,984 per year, but at y school, you only have a 78% chance of graduating, 83% chance of being employed after graduation and earning only $28,485” are part and parcel of a neoliberal pipe dream that’s been carrying the toxic sludge of test scores to K-12 urban school districts for years. No government report card can replace the “my older brother’s friend went there and loved it.”
  • “Encourage innovation by stripping away unnecessary regulations.” I don’t even know where to start on my fears for this one. I’ll begin by saying that I love technology. I love pedagogical innovation. I love experimenting and I am an eager participant in many discussions about teaching and learning. But the way these are described just makes me shudder. What happens when we are rushing to innovate for high quality and low cost solutions, when we don’t really know what quality is? When quality is different in different contexts? We brush over the quality and focus on the cost.

Finally a last general fears. Just as the increased attention to accountability in K-12 has led to the reading skills curriculum crowding out subject areas such as science and social studies, I worry that the search for general student learning gains in higher ed, perhaps in the form of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, will start to crowd out the liberal arts. No one is going to gain any short term points in any accountability formula by taking a Shakespeare class.

The more we define college as only having individual economic benefits (I don’t suppose the report card will say “higher education will benefit your community x dollars) the more we lose the goal of an educated citizenry.  This will be a real loss, and it won’t be in the form of fewer whining, entitled humanities professors. We will shrink the vital role of education in our society, our culture. This is not innovation. Does a future where students receive training in their field by teachers in a classroom, but all non-major teaching is done online and via MOOC appeal to you? It would certainly be more affordable to the middle class.