President Obama gave everyone more detail on his latest higher education reform ideas this morning. The proposals are unlikely to make many friends among the higher education establishment.
The big pieces:
• A proposal to tie a portion of federal financial aid dollars to whether institutions maintain low net prices and provide “long-term value” to their students.
• A Race to the Top for College Affordability and Completion: A competitive grant program that incentivizes states to lower postsecondary costs, and a smaller program (“First in the World”) for individual institutions and non-profit organizations to experiment with lower-cost models.
• An effort to create a College Scorecard for consumers that would (eventually) include measures of labor market success.
What to make of it all? Two quick reflections:
1. A college scorecard with comparable information on costs and quality makes good sense. I’ve written (repeatedly) about the need for better consumer information, shown that information can affect the way parents evaluate colleges, and discussed the shortcomings of existing efforts to provide it.
In K-12, the NAEP exam is necessary because the states have no incentive to honestly “keep score” on their own. The federal government has also fulfilled this role in higher education via the National Center for Education Statistics. This latest iteration is an effort to streamline the data that are available, place any given institution’s cost and performance in context, and add some measures that have heretofore been unavailable (earnings and employment).
Two issues to keep in mind:
Measuring earnings and employment information for all colleges and universities seems sure to provoke a firestorm of debate. But the federal government is already collecting similar information for for-profits and vocational programs at community colleges.
Second, making the information available is not enough: policymakers must find ways to proactively put the scorecards in front of consumers. Seems like providing the scorecard for each school a student lists on the FAFSA is the right place to start.
2. While it’s not entirely clear, it looks like the “First in the World” competitive grant program will be limited to colleges and nonprofit organizations, thereby precluding any for-profit service providers from applying.
This echoes the administration’s stubborn stance on the i3 program in K-12, and it means that some of the most innovative providers in higher education will be left out. Many for-profits (and I’m not just talking about colleges and universities here) are experimenting with promising models of instructional delivery, student services, and credentialing and assessment that are bending the cost curve and promoting student success. Barring these outfits would be a missed opportunity to harvest the best of what the for-profit sector has to offer: the fruits of their R and D. For-profit organizations should be included, at the very least as potential partners to public and non-profit institutions.
Whatever happens, if anyone is considering a career change, now would be the time to get hitched to a higher education lobbying firm. Judging by the initial response to Obama’s ideas, it’s going to be a “growth industry” over the next few months.