Presidential zeal

Critics turn on proposal to ‘shame’ sector into cutting costs

August 29, 2013

President Barack Obama’s grand plan to lower the costs of US higher education by ranking colleges according to value for money indicators is a misguided attempt to “shame” institutions and may drive them to standardise courses, critics have warned.

Mr Obama’s plan, unveiled in a major speech last week, is already running into the political opposition that seems to resist almost anything the president proposes. But while academics scoff at being forced to “wear sackcloth” and Republicans criticise what they consider to be excessive government intervention, the president’s scheme could have far-reaching effects, even without their consent or support.

Among other things, the president calls for university rankings by 2015 based on institutions’ value for students and taxpayers, according to criteria including the proportion of students who graduate on time, the debt they incur to pay tuition fees and the amount they can expect to earn after graduation.

However, some of the president’s proposals ultimately will require backing from Congress: it will be asked to change the federal financial aid programme so as to reward higher-performing universities by giving students at those institutions larger grants and lower-cost loans than at rival campuses judged to be doing a poor job.

“Colleges that keep their tuition down and are providing high-quality education are the ones that are going to see their taxpayer money going up,” Mr Obama said.

But Republican critics in Congress have accused the president of seeking to introduce a form of government price control.

Mr Obama also proposes to raise the maximum federal tuition grant by more than 15 per cent, to expand tax credits for families paying tuition fees, and to let students cap their repayments at no more than 10 per cent of their income if they take out loans to pay for their higher education.

These proposals face a particularly difficult path to fruition in the age of austerity. Yet students have supported the plans, which Aaron Smith, co-founder and director of Young Invincibles – an advocacy group for 18- to 34-year-olds – called “exactly what students are looking for” and “big steps forward that could truly shake up the broken status quo of our higher education system”.

Moocs and metrics

Universities have been particularly critical of the president’s suggestion that massive open online courses and other technology could be harnessed to reduce the costs of university education, arguing that there is little evidence to state that Moocs produce good teaching results.

But the biggest point of dispute has been the idea of judging universities according to certain measurable success rates.

“Albert Einstein was reported to have said: ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted,’” said Rudy Fichtenbaum, president of the American Association of University Professors.

The plans, Professor Fichtenbaum added, “will result in a race to the bottom, driving public universities and non-elite private universities to standardise their curricula to ensure they get a passing grade”.

Robert Zemsky, chair of the Learning Alliance for Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania, warned that Mr Obama was “going to try to use the shock and awe theory: ‘Well, I’ll shame you into doing things differently.’ That’s not actually how you get things done differently.”

Professor Zemsky added: “Don’t make us wear sackcloth. Even if we deserve to wear it, that isn’t going to make us change. Engage us in our curiosity, engage us in our willingness to think about things differently. Then you have a chance with us.”

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