Which Way Forward? President Obama and Higher Education

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by Brian C. Mitchell

On Thursday, Jan. 16, 2014, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama met with more than 140 education officials from public and private colleges and universities, corporations, foundations and nonprofit groups to talk about college opportunity.

Organized by White House economic adviser Gene B. Sperling, the event drew pledges from the group for new and additional initiatives that reinforced President Obama’s agenda to use college access as a way to improve economic mobility for Americans. Mr. Obama noted that this would be a “year of action,” asserting, “I’m going to be working with Congress where I can to accomplish this, but I’m also going to act on my own if Congress is deadlocked.”

The higher education community reacted positively but not without some criticism of the forum. Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity College (Washington, D.C.), suggested in The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example, that “the gathering had a big missing link: the experience of the hundreds of colleges that have already provided more access, for far longer, with larger investments than most of the ‘new’ commitments made at the White House meeting.”

The Thursday meeting contrasted with a contentious 2013 when the White House announced that it would issue the Interactive College Scorecard to give students and families five key pieces of data about a college: costs, graduation rate, loan default rate, average amount borrowed, and employment. The Obama administration took an additional step last summer linking the scorecard to student financial aid. Writing in Diverse Issues in Higher Education last month, the president of Metropolitan College (New York), Vinton Thompson, concluded that “President Obama’s proposal of August 2013 to tie individual students’ financial aid to government ratings of the college they attend is perhaps the worst idea ever put forward for higher education by a sitting president.”

Other critics noted that a “one glove fits all” ratings system could not address the difference in mission, purpose, student demographics, resource base, transfer population, or steady improvement across institutions. Still others faulted the quality of the research and the failure to have access measured by agreed-to standards for research not readily available or even developed yet.

Set against this backdrop, there is a critical question that must be answered. Which way forward?

Here are some thoughts.

First, a collegial tone is helpful to promote discussion. So much of the Scorecard rhetoric has been shaped by warnings that the President would use his “bully pulpit.” In response, higher education reacted defensively. By word and deed, the President and his senior education aides must not come across as bullies or preachers. The President must not look like Moses descending the mountain with the Ten Commandments. Higher education needs colleagues. There are some big decisions ahead.

Second, the President should ease off on the implementation of key aspects of the Scorecard, especially the link to financial aid recipients. If backed into a corner, higher education leadership will poke holes in the quality of the research that supports the new federal policies. The President will come across as a not-ready-for-prime-time player who did not take the time to work with and understand higher education. He can lose important policy initiatives when the other side has better facts and innumerable anecdotes with which to counter him.

Third, Americans need a comprehensive understanding on where the President intends to take the federal government into a conversation with higher education. What is the foundation for the federal commitment to higher education, both for students and institutions? The Thursday summit was a nice political meeting, but it was not the deep, sustainable dialogue needed about access, equity, research development, economic growth and workforce development.

Fourth, the President must move beyond the world of think tank policy and into the trenches where the work gets done. It’s not important who gets invited to a first meeting. And, it’s unfair to dismiss these first moments as mere photo opportunities. What is critical is that government—state and federal—and higher education understand much more comprehensively what higher education has become, what pressures and opportunities exist, and its value as a national priority.

Change is inevitable. No one group—not even the Executive Branch—can foist its brand of change on a complex higher education system.

If progress is made, those responsible must have better research; a deeper, ongoing conversation across all sectors of higher education—public, private, two-year, four-year, nonprofit, and for-profit—a consensus on policy; and a strategy to fund a common direction as the tools that make it happen. “Good cop/bad cop” is counterproductive to sound national higher education policy. Seminars like Thursday’s meeting are nice, but they confuse process with collective action.

If the question is which way forward, the answer is ultimately much bigger than deciding how we fund and measure American higher education in 2014 and beyond. If Mr. Obama is right and education is the key to economic mobility, the answer will shape whether Americans respond successfully and creatively to the challenges of the 21st century.

The global clock is ticking. It’s time to call the question together.

Dr. Brian C. Mitchell is president of Brian Mitchell Associates and a director of the Edvance Foundation. He is the retired president of Bucknell University and former president of Washington & Jefferson College.

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