On August 22, 2013, President Obama outlined a plan for improving access in higher education in a speech at the University of Buffalo. This plan is basically a higher education version of Race to the Top wherein colleges/universities will be given bonuses for enrolling students who are Pell Grant eligible; colleges/universities will be penalized (how they are penalized was not made clear) for high drop-out rates; colleges/universities will be ranked based upon measures such as graduation rates, graduate earnings, transfer rates and debt levels. Higher ranked schools will be given more aid.
About a year ago in anticipation of the Presidential election, I wrote a blog post summarizing President Obama’s education agenda. In that piece I report data indicating that Race for the Top, though costing 4.3 billion dollars (at that point), had not provided significant improvements in schools. More recent national data won’t be released until around October at which point I plan to revisit the statistics in hopes of more positive outcomes for a plan that is now carrying a $6 billion price tag.
Given the lack of evidence in favor of Race for the Top I am baffled by the Administration’s decision to implement a similar program in higher education—especially one for which he is already requesting $1.26 billion (this is in addition to the $500 million from the Dept of Labor). I am unsurprised that Obama and Duncan continue to think that by throwing money the state of education in this country will improve. Thus far they’ve increased Pell Grant funding, made loans more accessible to more people, and hoisted responsibility for enacting NCLB on state and local governments. In essence they have not done anything to effect real change and this latest proposal is yet another bait and switch mechanism. While we are all drowning in spreadsheets of statistically unsound data, he and his team will be behind the curtain crafting who knows what other plans to avoid addressing what I believe to be the cause and symptom of our declining global position: inequitable public schools.
To take a plan that is not working in K-12 and apply it to 12-16 is asinine. If anything, such a plan is more likely to fail in higher education because the very colleges and universities to which the President hopes to send more students function in an insular bubble called Academia. In this bubble live the top 100 colleges and certainly the top 50. These institutions have and will continue to function seamlessly regardless of what’s happening at large in the U.S. This is because top tier schools have two things other schools do not: large endowments and a guaranteed market base. The economy crash was an unfortunate event for all places of learning but those institutions most affected were/are public colleges and universities who rely on state funds to supplement their meager endowment. When the economy crashed, these schools lost state funds and thus many were barely able to open. They suffered massive lay-offs, hiring freezes, and in extreme instances, had to choose between closing their doors and selling artistic and cultural artifacts. The same thing happened to private colleges who do not have a guaranteed market. When tuition got too high, loans became inaccessible or undesirable, and the need for immediate employment outweighed the pursuit of learning, students didn’t enroll and those colleges whose budget is heavy reliant on tuition revenue were at a loss for how to serve the remaining students. The switch to adjunct faculty over tenure-track faculty, the erosion of athletic and art programs and the elimination of entire disciplines were the only options left.
President Obama is proposing another option. An option that might be incredibly appealing to schools who need a financial bonus and the lure of increased financial aid to attract students. These are not the top 100 schools. A recent report on educational inequality in higher education stated that low income students and students of color are attending lower tier colleges at disproportional rates as is. Given that the cut off for Pell Grant funding is an annual family income of $35,000 or less, this new plan is targeting students who attend open-access schools, not those who attend top tier colleges. As the report indicates, students at open-access schools graduate at lower rates, take a longer time toward degree, are less likely to attend graduate school and have lower post-graduation earnings. All this new plan does is incentivize colleges and universities to lower their standards so they can increase enrollment, get more low income students and thus get more federal aid, and dilute the rigor of the curriculum so they can avoid high drop-out and transfer-rates and shorten time to degree. In essence, the schools who would ‘buy’ this plan are the very ones for whom this plan should not be available.
If you want to increase economic diversity in higher education, devise a plan that incentivizes schools that do not already have economic and racial diversity. Top tier colleges serve primarily white and middle to upper class students. If you are going to measure schools and rank them, why on Earth would I choose to enroll students who may not improve my outcomes? Most top tier schools (barring the Ivy League schools who now have their own program in place to enroll more low income students) are not need-blind admission for a reason. They want to have a certain percentage of students who can pay. These schools already have high graduation rates and low drop-out and transfer rates. They already get bonuses—they are called alumni contributions. This plan has nothing to do with them. Basic Behaviorism tells us that if you want to change someone’s behavior, you need to implement relevant rewards and punishments. The financial incentives are moot as top colleges have their own pot of money and the know-how to get more of it if needed. The threat of public data is not a threat at all to schools that are already doing well on those dimensions. By all means, measure those variables and rank the schools (btw, U.S. News and World Report already does this). I imagine the top 100 rankings would change very little.
All this plan does, like pay for performance in K-12, is incentivize schools to lower standards so they can meet arbitrary (e.g., standardized tests) educational goals. If I have to choose between laying off staff and faculty, selling institutional history and closing forever or changing my admissions criterion so I can get more money from the government, I choose the latter. And I suspect and expect higher education administrators to do the same.
I just had more hope that our national leaders would focus efforts on remedying causes of educational inequities, not exacerbate them.