Lead or Lambaste – Which Will It Be Mr. President?

Barry Fisher, a friend from back in the days of high school (love that Facebooks helps us keep these connections) was kind enough to ask what I thought about President Obama’s recent speech on helping assure college is affordable. We’ve been busy with the opening of the new year so this is my first chance to share my thoughts on the subject.

Having proudly voted for the man twice, I have to say the plan is just one more example of when he most disappoints me. He takes an important and complex subject – college access and affordability – and boils it down into language that could mean just about anything.

My most notable concern is the effort to tie funding (state or federal) to what is euphemistically described as “success” of students. Folks using that term typically really mean “graduation” because they seem to believe that graduation is (or ought to be) the one and only one measurement of whether or not a student has achieved anything by going to college. I have some major issues with that. First, there are both non-market and market benefits that accrue from every year in college. It’s not like going and then stopping before graduation is a complete waste. Second, what does it say to students (particularly first generation students) who aren’t sure whether or not college is for them? Should they just not start? What about the kid from rural Indiana who lives on land his family has farmed for generations who takes the courageous step of trying college and then, feeling like she got a good run at it and decided it wasn’t for her, returns to her family farm where she contributes to the strength of her family and community. How did we get to a place in American where she and her institution are labeled a failure?

President Obama mentioned Indiana as a state that has tied performance to funding. Have you looked closely at what is going on in Indiana public higher education funding Mr. President? A good argument can be made that the metrics as adopted are serving to simply shift dollars to the institutions with the most selective admissions policies.

A related concern is that colleges and universities, acting rationally, will simply reshape their admissions policies to assure they are only taking on those most likely to succeed. How will that help create great learning environments or encourage upward social mobility? How will that promote access?

A third concern is with a notion that seems to inform his thinking in developing these policy recommendations. Give credit for experience. Give credit for competency. Get a credential faster. These are all manifestations of the notion that outcomes and only outcomes matter. What about the journey? What about the ways in which you come to know things and the interactions you have with others in which you share ways of knowing and learning with one another?

Higher education has made itself vulnerable to threats to academic freedom from politicians. We have not been as responsive as we could have been or should have been to changes in student demographics, new teaching technologies, or new ways of learning and knowing for our students. That said, the American higher education model remains one of the best (if not the best) in the world because it provides multiple ports of entry and respects the role of an independent faculty. My fear is that the broad (overly broad) policy recommendations put forth by President Obama could lend themselves to the erosion of these historical strengths.

Here are some suggestions for how President Obama and others in the U.S. government (and state governments) could help assure that higher education remains a good value for all:

1. A thoughtful plan to grow more meaningful jobs for college graduates would be very helpful. My sense is that the perceived value of higher education has been diminished as a function of a failing economy more than a failing faculty. There must be ways to create incentives for companies to get off their reserves and higher recent college graduates into jobs at reasonable salaries.

2. There are certainly segments of higher education where folks are pretty clearly scamming students and the federal aid system. A narrowly focused program to stamp that out would be welcome.

3. A meaningful attempt to curb the costs of medical benefits could really help.

4. A reduction in the ridiculous amount of federal paperwork required on a daily basis would too. To be fair, there is some mention of this in President Obama’s plan.

5. Speaking of paperwork, it is time that we do something about FAFSA. How many more studies do we need showing that it is an intimidating obstacle for many students?

6. While there is no specific role for the Federal government in higher education outlined in the Constitution, I’m grateful for things like Title IX, ADA, and Higher Education Act. That said, how about requiring that the various federal agencies simply reconcile their conflicting policies/interpretations so we don’t have to spend some much money on consultants and studies in the effort to head off costly federal investigations or complaints?

6. Rather than trying to redefine what a U.S. college degree means, why not create an alternative credential and let folks pursue it through other means? Then the marketplace can decide who it wants to hire.

It doesn’t help motivate students, staff, or faculty when a college-educated populist from an elite institution stands up and paints all of higher education as greedy and inefficient. Please remember Mr. President that there are a lot of hard working folks out here who are truly committed to serving students through their work in higher education. Many of those folks haven’t had raises (or have had very small raises) in several years on already pretty modest salaries. You can help lead them, or you can lambaste them.

Which will it be Mr. President?

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