A Narrow Proposal at a Time of Crisis

Charles Zappia, July 2013

President Barack Obama, in his speech at the State University of New York at Buffalo on August 22, promised to “fundamentally rethink and reshape the higher education system.” His plan to assure access, affordability, and accountability has three main strategic goals: rate colleges on the basis of student outcomes, encourage competition between colleges to use innovations to increase affordability, and make student debt manageable.

As to the substance of the president’s proposals, their details are as yet undetermined; nevertheless, there are reasons for concern. One major problem is that the proposed ratings intended to demonstrate the worthiness of educational institutions are going to be difficult to calibrate. For example, one way colleges may earn a rating as “high-performing” will be to demonstrate student success while providing access to all those who want to learn. Promoting both success and access is not easy, as recent experience in two-year institutions in my home state suggests. California’s community colleges have traditionally focused on access. Under the unprecedented direction of state government, the primary focus is shifting to “student success.” The focus on “student success” is leading to the re-imposition of prerequisites, which were largely eliminated some time ago in an attempt to widen access. Recent studies confirm that students who meet prerequisites in writing and reading comprehension are more likely to complete their courses with grades of “C” or higher. Resulting higher success rates will suggest that a college is “high performing,” but the composition of the student body will change, as the most poorly prepared students, often the most disadvantaged, will be denied access. So it may be that measuring student success and access, both identified for consideration in the new ratings model, will produce very different scores.

Encouraging innovation resonates with many Americans. But when innovation is primarily intended to lower costs, it is unlikely that the results will maintain quality. Although Obama provided few details beyond references to programs that do not yet have track records, his general plan seems to favor online courses and other technologically aided instructional models. Within academia, there is considerable controversy about whether instructional technology is cost-effective. There is even more disagreement regarding the relationship between online instruction and the educational experience. In the California community colleges, we have found that students are more likely to drop out of an online course than a face-to-face offering. If this trend holds, it may place innovation and the timely completion of courses and degrees, another of the president’s goals, potentially at odds with one another.

Obama’s identification of rising student debt as a “crisis” is a no-brainer. About the only way most families can afford the education of their children, even if the first two years are in a community college, is to borrow. The president noted that student debt now exceeds $1 trillion dollars, and that debt is darkening the futures of college students and their families. There is an equally troubling development he did not mention: the experience of earning an expensive college education funded with borrowed money has clearly affected students’ values. The Higher Education Research Institute’s 2012 Freshman Survey revealed that although a majority of students still stated that they went to college to pursue knowledge and cultivate an appreciation for ideas, more students than ever responded that they went to college simply to get a better job and earn more money. The desire to have a good job and earn a decent living is important, but job training should not eclipse the humanistic focus on learning how to make a life worth living. Obama’s solutions to the student debt crisis are modest. For example, he praised the fact that his “bipartisan” compromise on interest rates for student loans will save recipients about $1,500 this year; he did not mention that, since the rate is now tied to market rates, it will most likely increase and cost future borrowers more.

The major shortcoming of President Obama’s Buffalo speech was not so much what he said, but what he did not say. I find his focus on educational reform to be far too narrow, as I am convinced that most success-inhibiting factors are broadly social and economic. Obama touted education as the main pathway to a better life, but that pathway is narrowing. The reality is that the increasing number of Americans born to parents of modest means, people whose real incomes are lower now than they were in the 1970s, have less chance of “making it,” through education or any other means, than do children and young adults in virtually any other advanced nation. I do hope that the president’s concern for the crises of higher education results in improvements. At the very least, he has already focused a brighter light upon the need for change. But without directly confronting the widening inequality and maldistribution of wealth in American society, I don’t think the current proposals have more than a modest shot at success.

Charles A. Zappia is the dean of the School of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Multicultural Studies and a professor of history at San Diego Mesa College.