Society and Culture, Education

Obama’s Stephen Colbert moment in higher education

SOTU: Nothing new on education” says Rick Hess? I beg to differ. At least one sentence was “new.”

When the president took aim at higher education, he unexpectedly channeled his inner Stephen Colbert. Colbert routinely places people and groups that offend him in one of three categories—first, you’re “called out” for your behavior; then you are put “on notice”; finally Colbert declares you “dead to me.” (The president is familiar with the Colbert framework: back in the 2008 campaign, Obama himself put political distractions “on notice.”)

Evidently, colleges and universities have officially moved from stage one to stage two in the president’s estimation:

So let me put colleges and universities on notice: If you can’t stop tuition from going up, the funding you get from taxpayers will go down.

It’s about time: over the past quarter century, the cost of college has tripled after controlling for inflation, while family incomes have increased only 10 percent. According to the College Board, in the past year alone, tuition and fees at public universities grew by 8.3 percent.

What this sentence means for policy is unclear: the White House blueprint suggests the president “is proposing to shift some Federal aid away from colleges that don’t keep net tuition down and provide good value.” We will get more detail at the president’s University of Michigan speech on Friday.

For now, a couple things to keep in mind:

1.    Avoid anything resembling “price controls:” Back in 2003, Representative Buck McKeon (R-CA) proposed linking student aid eligibility to a “college affordability index” that linked tuition increases to the CPI. The effort was torpedoed by talk of “price controls” and steadfast lobbying by higher education groups.

Lesson: anything resembling “price controls” will bomb. The focus must be on holding institutions accountable for the way they spend federal money.

2.    “Value” is critical: Thinking in terms of return on investment makes more sense than just out of pocket costs (cheap community colleges may deliver little by way of labor market returns). But doing so requires collecting data on the labor market outcomes of students. Currently, the feds only do so for for-profit colleges and vocational programs at community colleges. Placing value at the center of this larger effort will mean extending those data to all sectors of higher education.

Unless we can get a hold of college costs, it won’t be long before most colleges reach “dead to me” status in the minds of most Americans. Good to see it mentioned forcefully in SOTU, but keep your eyes peeled for more specifics on how this might work in practice.

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