What would Mitt Romney’s higher education agenda look like? Yesterday we got a taste when the campaign released a white paper on education.
Three things stand out:
1. Coming to grips with the Bennett Hypothesis. In the late eighties, former Secretary of Education William Bennett argued that continually increasing the amount of federal student aid only encourages colleges and universities to raise their tuition prices. Romney’s blueprint reflects this school of thought, arguing that the feds must no longer “write a blank check to universities to reward their tuition increases.”
In light of the governor’s support for the student loan interest rate freeze, it’s tough to give him full credit here. But the intuition is a good one: in the race between college tuition and federal student aid, aid will lose.
The problem lies in translating this into policy. Recall that President Obama made similar arguments earlier this year, leading pseudo-libertarian higher education interests to rail against federal “price controls.”
As Alex Pollock wrote last year, an interesting route to attacking the cost problem is to ensure that colleges have “skin in the game” when it comes to student loans. Pollock argues that forcing colleges to take on some of the risk in student loans—say, a 10 percent share in the performance of the loan—would better align incentives with the interests of students and the public. It would be good to see some of this thinking in Romney’s agenda.
2. Transparency and consumer choice: The Romney blueprint dedicates considerable space to the need for increased transparency in higher education. Better information on quality and outcomes is a linchpin for many other higher education goals: Increasing student success, encouraging responsible borrowing, and rewarding innovation all flow from providing consumers with better information. Right now, they don’t have it.
3. Supporting innovation: The blueprint also takes the Obama Department of Education to task for its innovation-killing attempt to universally define the “credit hour” as a unit of “seat-time”—a certain number of hours of instruction in a given week—via federal regulations.
The specifics are wonky, but the long and short of it is that this definition hamstrings innovative programs that allow students to move through coursework at their own pace once they have shown mastery on a set of exams. If it only takes me 6 weeks to learn college algebra, why should I have to wait the full 15 to pass through it?
Romney takes on this bone-headed regulation straight away, arguing for a focus on “measured competency” rather than “time to degree.” A repeal of the credit hour definition would be a step in the right direction and a welcome change for higher education innovators.
The specifics are still hazy, but these approaches are a good start.