Produce eight million extra US graduates by 2020? Yes we can

But President Obama's rhetoric may not be matched by fiscal reality, expert warns. Sarah Cunnane writes

August 19, 2010

A target set by Barack Obama to allow US higher education to "retake the lead" worldwide may be unachievable, an expert has warned.

In a speech at the University of Texas at Austin last week, President Obama restated his goals for the sector - including increasing the number of graduates by eight million by 2020 - after a period in which the US fell from first to 12th place in global graduation rates.

However, Philip Altbach, director of the Center for International Higher Education at Boston College, said that the target was "not achievable" at current levels of funding.

"The Republican (opposition) is very much the party of 'no' at the moment. It feels there's too much government debt and nothing more can be done," he said. "So the administration has been trying to put money into higher education but not succeeding."

Others, however, believe the sector may rise to the challenge, which also included a commitment to foster more links between community colleges and four-year institutions.

Mollie Benz Flounlacker, associate vice-president of the Association of American Universities, said the organisation "very much supports" President Obama's goals, which are "ambitious but also very desirable" if the US is to retain its global preeminence. However, she warned against relying on targets to quantify success and said it was important to "avoid the devaluation of the college degree".

The drive to increase graduate numbers comes as demand for places in publicly funded universities outstrips supply in some key states: in California, for example, more than 100,000 qualified students are expected to be turned away this year.

Michael Kirst, emeritus professor of education and business administration at Stanford University, said the eight million target "would be tough even if everything were to remain the same to reach it". In fact, he said, graduation rates are currently falling.

He pointed to state cutbacks that had prompted large tuition-fee hikes, as well as the increase in the number of students from groups who are less likely to complete college.

Despite the scepticism about the 2020 target, commentators were quick to praise President Obama for his efforts to reform the sector since he came to power.

In particular, the current Congressional hearings into for-profit private colleges were cited as an example of how this administration differs from its predecessor.

Professor Altbach said the 2006 Spellings Report on the future of higher education - one of the "last gasps" of the Bush administration - emphasised the difference in approach: "It was very sympathetic to the for-profit sector. Republicans generally are."

By contrast, the ongoing Congressional hearings were closely scrutinising the sector, with numerous allegations of dubious activities coming to light, he added.

Professor Altbach said that while rumours of questionable practices were rife, almost everyone in higher education had been shocked by the "sleaziness" of some of the findings. Professor Kirst agreed: "It was shockingly more widespread than anyone had perceived."

Another reform seen as a "major victory" for the president is the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act's overhaul of the student-loan system.

Passed in March, the Act saw the axing of federal loans being sold on to private banks, which it is estimated will save more than $60 billion (£38 billion) over the next 10 years.

The move had previously been blocked by banking-industry lobbyists, but Professor Kirst said that the "stars were aligned" as President Obama's efforts coincided with public anger with the banks over the financial crisis.

The money saved will go towards increasing Pell Grants, which help poorer students.

Ms Flounlacker also praised the administration's openness to dialogue with the sector.

"You can't have a policy or legislative discussion if you don't have the interests of higher education represented," she said. "This administration has done a good job ... it really has made sure we have access."

Despite the praise, Professor Altbach, Professor Kirst and Ms Flounlacker all agreed that the financial situation was hobbling the Obama administration's efforts.

In the US, most funding for public higher education is distributed by the states, and so the federal government's ability to address the decline in funding seen in many parts of the country is limited.

However, Professor Altbach said that President Obama could use the "bully pulpit" - a phrase coined by Theodore Roosevelt to describe the White House - to persuade those in charge of state funding to make college completion, for example, a priority.

Professor Kirst said it was "unclear" whether the current focus on community colleges - which were allocated $2.6 billion in the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act - would hold after the next election.

"A number of Democrats are worried about the move towards competitive grants that results in few winners and many losers," he said. "Why would Democrats representing states that are unlikely to win these grants vote for them?"

Professor Altbach concluded that, as far as higher education was concerned, he would give President Obama a mid-term grade of "A for effort, C for implementation and B+ for trying to implement things".

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