Barack Obama can relate to one complaint from “Occupy” protesters. He and his wife once had to pay off $120,000 in student debt.
So when the president met Monday with leaders of prominent universities at the White House, he spoke with some authority about the high cost of tuition as well as a need for better teaching by faculty to ensure American workers stay competitive.
Mr. Obama’s own education paid off. Just look where he sits. But for many in college today, dropping out is all too common when money dries up. And too many graduates fail to land jobs in their chosen fields or they don’t meet the hiring standards of employers because faculty aren’t held accountable for what students actually learn.
Obama has a tool to help fix all that. He plans to tie federal aid to how well schools perform.
His education secretary, Arne Duncan, proposes that Pell Grants and other government money for higher education be based on how well such institutions reform, such as in holding down tuition, accelerating the time to earn a degree, boosting completion rates, and closing gaps in student achievement.
Too many colleges prefer the status quo, says Mr. Duncan. He quotes President Woodrow Wilson, who once led Princeton University, as saying that “changing a curriculum is like moving a graveyard – you never know how many friends the dead have until you try to move them.”
Can federal incentives really break through the resistance of faculty to adopting new ideas?
Duncan already has shown success by using the lure of money to get many states to enact reforms for K-12 schools. Those reforms are one of the administration’s successes that even brings praise from Republicans.
Now Obama and Duncan are turning their attention to higher education, using proven models of reform to entice others to do the same.
“Dozens of colleges and universities have either cut or frozen tuition, or provide a four-year graduation guarantee, where the college agrees to cover the cost of the extra time it takes a full-time student to graduate,” Duncan said in a speech last month. He cited many examples of innovation, such as performance-based scholarships, that can help ensure students graduate with “demonstrated competence.”
The White House meeting also included discussion of what to do with some 37 million adults who have had some college education but didn’t graduate. They can be drawn back to school if new technologies for e-learning become more widely used, lowering costs and allowing easier measurement of what students have mastered in a subject.
Many reforms today are directed at holding schools accountable for student success. But a federal push is only one way to do that.
Prospective students can also select schools that are transparent about the real costs, that push faculty to teach freshmen courses (and teach in innovative ways), and that ensure “learning outcomes.”
Lower costs and higher productivity in higher education would mean many students won’t be saddled with $120,000 in student loans, as the Obamas were.