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In February 2009, in his first speech to Congress, President Obama pledged that America would regain the world lead in college attainment by 2020. It was a bold declaration, one that gave hope to those who worry that the nation's historic commitment to higher learning is at risk.
Whether Obama really means it, however, remains to be seen. The administration has not yet developed a plan that would plausibly produce the millions of additional graduates needed to meet the 2020 goal.
To get there, the president must change the politics of higher-education reform. He should begin by using the bully pulpit to underscore how public and student interests often conflict with the priorities of traditional colleges and universities. The administration knows how to do this, because it's already done so—twice. In 2010 it took $87-billion in unneeded student-loan subsidies away from private banks and gave the money to taxpayers and low-income students in the form of more-generous Pell Grants. In 2011 the Department of Education installed a new system for regulating the rapidly growing for-profit higher-education sector, protecting public dollars and saving students from being suckered into borrowing too much money for low-value degrees.
Those were major victories. But at the same time, the administration's ambitious plans to improve college attainment, the American Graduation Initiative, fell short. According to people close to the 2010 negotiations that occurred alongside student-loan reform, the alphabet soup of higher-education-lobbying organizations headquartered in Washington worked behind the scenes to scuttle the graduation effort, through outright opposition or benign neglect.
In a time of punishing state budget cuts, one might think colleges would welcome billions of new federal dollars to help more students graduate. Yet the D.C. higher-education lobby gave the effort scant support, in large part because that lobby is dominated by rich and powerful universities that would rather leave dollars on the table than countenance any new federal involvement in higher education. Financially struggling institutions that actually educate significant numbers of low-income students were left in the cold.
Fighting banks and corporations is easy politics for a Democratic president. Taking on beloved State U. will be a tougher nut to crack. But that's what Obama must to do to build political will for needed reforms.
For example, the administration has focused significant effort on improving community colleges. Most students who must graduate in order for the country to meet the 2020 goal will begin their higher education at two-year colleges. The $5-billion community-college construction program included in the president's recently announced jobs plan would upgrade badly deteriorating facilities and help kick-start economic growth.
But this administration has, like its predecessors, a tendency to praise the salt-of-the-earth goodness of community colleges while giving less attention to problems that plague many of them. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has been quite candid in denouncing "dropout factory" high schools where most students fail to graduate. He is less vocal in observing that many of the students who survive dropout-factory high schools enroll in community colleges or open-access four-year universities where graduation rates are even worse.
Privileged four-year universities, meanwhile, often pay lip service to enrolling more low-income students but then fail to spend the resources necessary to do so—despite the recovery of many recent endowment losses. This is a moral outrage, and Obama should say so.
Financial-aid policy also needs fresh thinking. While the administration increased the maximum Pell Grant from $4,731 to $5,550—one reason the program's annual budget has increased by an astonishing $20-billion in just two years—it hasn't put the program on stable financial footing for the long term. Nor did the additional money buy new incentives for colleges to improve student success. Future federal forecasts are dire. That means a series of costly annual defensive battles just to keep the $5,550 amount from dropping, even as relentless tuition hikes eat away at the Pell Grant's value over time.
A host of existing federal programs are ripe for reform. For example, at $826.5-million this year, the TRIO programs represent the federal government's single largest investment in helping first-generation, low-income students prepare for college. But, for programs with 45 years of history, TRIO has a mixed record of success. Its Upward Bound program, for example, spends about $5,000 per student, as much as some elementary and secondary schools spend on their students. Yet studies by the Department of Education have found no discernible impact on college-going or completion. In 2008 the powerful TRIO lobby got Congress to pass a law banning randomized-control trials to measure TRIO-program effectiveness. That is an affront to the basic scholarly values of higher education and a disservice to at-risk students who deserve support.
Minority-serving colleges and universities received an extra $2.55-billion as a result of the 2010 student-loan reforms. Yet those programs require remarkably little accountability for results—in part because the minority-serving institutions want to keep it that way. A 2009 program evaluation by the Government Accountability Office noted that one grantee had used taxpayer dollars for "student trips to locations such as resorts and amusement parks, and an airplane global-positioning system." America's population is becoming more diverse, and minority students are less likely than others to graduate from college, so improving the colleges that serve them will be crucial to meeting Obama's goal.
Uncle Sam should also support research to identify innovative new programs that help college students learn and earn degrees. There is a vehicle for this investment, called the Fund for the Improvement of Post-Secondary Education. Unfortunately, it has been regularly pillaged by members of Congress more interested in sending pork to their local districts than in identifying and supporting worthy research programs. When colleges accept such money, they are complicit in the degradation of higher-education research.
The administration does have several promising efforts under way. A $2-billion collaboration between the Departments of Education and Labor to create free, open-source learning resources could have a transformative effect on the rapidly growing field of online education. Another developing project could provide far more useful information to students and parents choosing colleges, improving the workings of the higher-education market, and putting more pressure on colleges to give students a high-quality education at a reasonable price. In addition, the Department of Education wants to create a "First in the World" competition to spur research innovation.
Those projects should be combined with major new efforts to describe exactly how much states, university systems, and individual colleges need to improve to meet the 2020 goal; provide new federal resources to achieve those ends; and hold the recipients accountable for results.
The president has been willing to speak such truths in other areas, including health care, taxation, banking, and defense. It's discouraging, perhaps, to admit that the higher-education industry belongs in the same category. But willingness to acknowledge this reality will make all the difference in determining whether Obama's goal represents real leadership or simply a grand promise doomed to fail.