President Obama’s Plan for Higher Education

Last week, President Barack Obama unveiled his plan for higher education reform.

Unfortunately, Obama’s plan focused almost exclusively on the cost of college tuition and fees. His plan misunderstands the reasons for higher tuition rates, which largely stem from a 20% growth in university administration over the past two decades, rather than an increase in instructional costs. The costs of new technologies has also affected university budgets. At public universities, higher tuition rates have also resulted from massive cuts in educational funding by state legislatures.

Obama-SUNY-Buffalo

Obama’s plan misdiagnoses the problems in higher education, focusing almost exclusively on tuition rates. See my previous posts in the section on “Education Policy” for data on tuition rates and the cost of higher education.

One of the major features of the plan would be a rating system of colleges and universities, based on “performance.” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports: “The president’s proposal to reward colleges based on a new kind of rating system, one that Mr. Obama said would favor colleges that are improving their performance and that are “helping students from all kinds of backgrounds succeed,” is broader than similar ideas he has put forth before.” But, the ratings for “performance” would assess colleges and universities for the performance of the students themselves. So, a student who earned Ds, Fs, or dropped out would reflect poorly on the university, even the student never showed up to class at all. Such a system would merely encourage grade inflation and passing students who failed to perform up to standards. This is no way to assess how higher educational institutions are performing.

Another element of the plan encourages universities to embrace teaching methods employing technologies, especially Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). MOOCs have some role to play in higher education, but the President is following the inflated rhetoric of Bill Gates and other computer gurus in presenting MOOCs as a panacea for the problem of rising educational costs. MOOCs cannot replace face-to-face contact and classroom learning, so they can at best supplement other forms of instruction and learning, rather than providing cheap education. See my other posts on MOOCs in this website’s sections on “Education Policy”, “Humanities Education”, and “Information Management”.

Obama’s plan is hardly original. The ideas he is advancing have been developed by major educational foundations and think tanks, some of them with lobbying connections to large corporations that produce educational software and publications.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that: “The president’s plan dovetails closely with the agendas of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has spent $472-million to remake college education in the United States, and of the Lumina Foundation, the largest private foundation devoted solely to higher education. Many features of the president’s plan have been advocated, too, in the research and analysis of the New America Foundation’s education-policy program.”

The President’s overview of his plan is available on the White House website.  The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on the plan itself, the sources of its ideas, as well as reactions to the plan and criticism of its provisions.

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