The Ticking Time Bomb in the President’s Higher Education Proposal

So I admit that I was initially confused by what the President could do *now* about his education plan. With the current Congress, nothing is getting passed. There are some elements in the plan which can be done through pure executive power, but most of it requires legislation. So why now? How does this announcement matter today?

The answer is in the first section of the fact sheet:

Before the 2015 school year, the Department of Education will develop a new ratings system to help students compare the value offered by colleges and encourage colleges to improve…Over the next four years, the Department of Education will refine these measurements, while colleges have an opportunity to improve their performance and ratings. The Administration will seek legislation using this new rating system to transform the way federal aid is awarded to colleges once the ratings are well developed. Students attending high-performing colleges could receive larger Pell Grants and more affordable student loans.

I don’t know if you caught that, but here’s what’s going on. The administration has the executive authority to collect these numbers on effectiveness and define the formula. What it is saying is that over the next four years it’s going to be tracking schools and ranking them. The plan is to propose them as a funding formula in the near term, and steer Title IV funds towards best “bang for buck” schools.

So let’s say the President doesn’t get this into the next Higher Education Act reauthorization (he won’t). When he fails, the numbers don’t go away. They keep getting compiled and refined, waiting…

When 2017 rolls around, what happens? Well, it’s potentially a whole new Congress. It’s potentially a Senate without a filibuster. And this will be proposed again, based on these numbers.

So here’s the deal — as these rankings are developed, and you find your institution is near the bottom (or even the middle) you have a choice. You can assume that the political reality after the next presidential election will look like it does today, and slough off these numbers being compiled about you as insignificant. Or you can take the view that there’s enough of a chance that environment may be favorable to the bill’s passage in a couple years that you’d better take the numbers seriously.

I actually think this is a good thing, but perhaps I’ll leave that to a later post. The question most administrators and state legislators have to ask themselves today is “Do I feel lucky?” I’m not sure how they will answer that.

5 thoughts on “The Ticking Time Bomb in the President’s Higher Education Proposal

  1. To be fair, if it’s a senate without a fillibuster, it’s going to be a GOP senate, and if we have a GOP president, we’re likely to see the end of the Department of Education.

    That said, how are they going to measure the schools? What points in the “datapalooza” will hold weight? Should I be as aghast as I am about our federal government coining the term “datapalooza” for use in policy documentation? If schools find themselves wonting as you mention, will they focus on providing better learning in a meta sense or just on re-engineering certain data points in their favor?

    • We’re two Senate elections away from 2016, with Dems/Inds four votes away from a filibuster-proof majority. That seems more than doable to me, especially with the wold card of a presidential election year. If 2016 brings a Republican President change is even more likely — there’s zero chance of a 14 seat Republican pickup, so DoE stays where it is, Republicans stop intransigence.Likelihood under a Republican administration is that the same numbers are used to direct funding, but with less carrot more stick.

      As far as where we are now, currently we have a voucher system where consumers direct their federal vouchers (for aid and subsidized loans) to colleges based at best on the horrible U.S. News and World Report rankings and at worst based on which campus has the best climbing wall. So if you want to be horrified, look at what happens today. Colleges already are gaming rankings. If you want to be tops in U.S. News, collect a lot of applications but turn down a lot of students, accept only students with high SAT scores, publish a lot of research and spend a lot of time getting press (so that peer rankings climb), avoid first gen students (so your retention rates don’t tank), pay faculty a lot of money (superstar researchers work) and get your faculty student ratio around 15:1 (accomplished by giving superstar researchers 6 person senior seminars, and hiring boatloads of adjunct labor) . And charge a LOT, because that’s how we know quality.

      Throw into this a campus cruise ship life that is designed to price the proles out of the market on room and board and attract wealthy students who will require less aid, give more as alumni (another U.S. News “metric”), and not cause near as many six-year grad problems as the lower class, and you’re looking at a system that acts largely as a privilege multiplier for the wealthy.

      So given that’s the game colleges currently play for rankings (and believe me, there’s a lot of effort put into playing this) then anything that actually erodes a system which rewards the institutions that cream off the top and punishes those that teach the most difficult students is an improvement, absolutely. You could tell me the formula was six year graduation rate times Pell percentage time the amount the tuition is less than $20,000 and I would say great, let’s go. We have grown so used to our insane voucher system that we have lost the sense of horror at what we’ve created. I’m hoping we can reclaim that horror soon; when we do, we will be *begging* colleges to game the new system….

      • Well said.

        I disagree on your GOP math; the Senate seats that are coming up are the ones Obama ushered in with his 2008 win, a groundswell long ago and far away. I think 14 GOP gains in two terms is more likely than 4 Dem gains. Both are highly unlikely though.

        My politics swing decidedly liberal, but I guess the difference I see between US News and is the .gov part, and that frightens me. Colleges shamelessly pony up for US News in going for the vouchers as you put it; I don’t see how that doesn’t snowball worse if now federal funding plays into the chart. Colleges already are gaming the system to look good for an out-of-print periodical; what are they going to do for Uncle Sam and Lady Liberty? I also don’t see how the current plan accounts for the pitfalls you mention in the existing paradigm except by saying “We will take this into account,” even though the metrics they advertise say the opposite? All the while, the federal government has gone neck-deep into a place the Higher Education Act says they shouldn’t go, achieved through sleight-of-hand and illusion. Yes, states have really blown it in regards to HE funding (and you are spot-on re: cruise ship living), but we can’t have it both ways: state-autonomous universities ranked and (bonus) funded by the feds. In trying to serve multiple masters we serve none. Meanwhile, we’ve replaced “cost” with “affordability” so we can punch “value” into the equation and not address the fact that jobs lost in the Great Recession have been replaced with lower paying jobs and the value aspect of a college is only attractive if it places you into a job where you can repay the loans. And I get that we are not going to lower tuition any time soon (well, unless we MOOC it), but we need environmentally-conscious solutions over federal mandates that threaten draconian. I think competency-based learning is a terrible education model, but I appreciate SNHU for trying something.

    • OK, I’ll respond to the ed stuff after some thought, but have to disagree on Senate. Next year is tough, sure, but 2016 is equally tough for Republicans. Add to that that i think both Franken and Shaheen have proven strong candidates whereas the 2010 Republicans are a pretty sorry lot (Kelly Ayotte in NH is in net *negative* approval in some polls, for example). Is four seats net in four years aspirational? Yeah. But it is possible.And if the Dems survive 2014 they might have the confidence to pull the plug on the filibuster anyway (it’s next year’s potential election turnaround that has them nervous).

      Let me think about your education points a little more.

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