Karen Hitchcock: “The Devil Is In The Details: ” President Obama’s Higher Education Plan

Sep 12, 2013

In recent weeks, there has been much reaction, both positive and negative, to President Obama’s plan to make college more affordable. The plan involves creating a ratings system for colleges and universities based on access, affordability and a variety of outcome measures and, eventually, linking levels of federal student aid to these measures. In order to implement such a ratings system, accurate data would need to be collected in such areas as tuition levels, graduation rates, student demographics and graduates’  earnings – a tall order, indeed, as one contemplates the extreme diversity of our nation’s system of higher education.

President Obama’s goal is straightforward. In the face of continually increasing tuition levels – some 250% at public four-year colleges over the last three decades – he is looking for ways to incentivize colleges to reduce costs and, hence, required tuition levels, in order to increase access, especially for students from lower economic levels.

In a Fact Sheet prepared by the White House, three major elements of his plan are delineated.  First: “Paying for Performance,” including tying levels of federal student financial aid to college performance in such areas as graduation rates, tuition levels, etc., as well as challenging states to implement performance-based budgeting.   Second: “Promoting  Innovation and Competition” by decreasing regulations, experimenting with new approaches to learning, like competency-based programs and MOOCs, and providing the public with accurate information regarding college performance. And, third: “Ensuring that Student Debt Remains Affordable” by tying repayment to earnings and seeing that all current borrowers are aware of the most flexible repayment options.

While each element of this plan has merit, they vary in the difficulty of their implementation. For example, the system being proposed to rate colleges on a number of performance measures is felt by many to be fraught with problems of data acquisition and data reliability for such areas as graduation rates and postgraduate earnings.  Given that student aid would be tied to these measures, students could be negatively impacted by college ratings over which they have no control and which may be based on inexact and, hence, misleading data.

Further, a number of unintended consequences of the proposed ratings system have been cited. For instance, will colleges try and “game” the system by decreasing admission of at-risk students in order to increase their graduation rates? This would run directly counter to the core goal of President Obama’s plan to increase affordable access for students from lower socioeconomic groups.

On the positive side, many have praised the President’s awareness that states must be partners in this program. As pointed out by the White House, it is absolutely essential that states do not decrease their funding as additional federal dollars flow into their colleges and universities – a practice too often seen around the country. Indeed, decreased state support has been one of the major drivers of increased tuition levels, as states continue to transfer the increasing costs of higher education to the student. Further, few have questioned the President’s commitment to make loan repayment less onerous. The major concerns continue to revolve around the particular metrics that will be used to rate colleges, and the degree to which such metrics are sensitive to institutional differences.

What is clear is that President Obama and future US presidents will need to address the untenable trajectory of college costs in this country. The current paradigms for postsecondary education are simply not sustainable. What is impressive about this plan is that it recognizes that affordable postsecondary education can only be achieved if all participants are a part of the solution.  States simply cannot continue to decrease their investment leading to unacceptable increases in tuition to fill the funding gap. The federal government need to recognize that higher education is not homogeneous; there is no single solution to the issue of affordability which will work across all institutional types. Colleges and universities need to accept that transformational-not incremental- change will be needed to address the spiraling costs of education, and they need to be more forthcoming in developing workable metrics to enable all interested constituencies to understand how they are performing across a number of important measures. And, students need to be mindful of the quality measures that will enable them to select a college wisely – in keeping with their particular talents, goals and aspirations.

Clearly, the “devil is in the details”. As many have stated, the ratings system developed under this plan must not “punish colleges” for accepting the very students it was designed to assist. This is a complex, highly nuanced problem which can only be addressed successfully if all interested parties, regardless of political affiliation, use this occasion to ask the difficult questions we must address if we are to ensure a quality and affordable postsecondary experience for all qualified students. That, ultimately, should be our shared goal. 

Dr. Karen Hitchcock, Special Advisor in the consulting firm, Park Strategies, LLC, was President of the University at Albany, State University of New York, from 1996-2004, after which she went on to lead Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. Dr. Hitchcock has received honorary degrees from Albany Medical College and from her alma mater, St. Lawrence University. She has served  on numerous regional and national committees and task forces dealing with issues in higher education, research and economic development. While at both the University at Albany and Queen’s University, she co-hosted the popular WAMC program, “The Best of our Knowledge”.

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