It’s a season of discontent with America’s key institutions. This week, Congress and the half-shuttered federal government top the nation’s list for disgust and disdain. But we’d wager that not far behind rank those enterprises with which Americans increasingly have a love-hate relationship — colleges and universities.
The national litany of higher-ed complaints is easy to recite: Tuition is too high. Student debt is too burdensome. Employment after graduation is too uncertain. The competence of graduates is too often lacking in the eyes of employers. And institutions are too hidebound by operational habits that seem out of tune with modern life and can impede student progress.
Yet Americans understand that higher education is crucial to their own success and that of their communities. They’re enrolling in bigger numbers than ever before: 70 percent of U.S. high school graduates enrolled in college in 2009, compared with 45 percent in 1960, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
President Obama reflected Americans’ mixed sentiments six weeks ago when he proposed that the federal government rank colleges and universities on metrics including graduation rate, affordability, and students’ debt and employment levels after graduation. By 2018, those rankings should at least in part determine how federal student financial aid is allotted, the president said.
A more functional Congress might now be conducting high-profile hearings on that proposal — and schools likely would be thinking today about how to improve their performances rather than how to cope with shutdown-induced interruptions in the flow of federal funds.
But in Minnesota, Obama’s plan and other ideas for making higher education more affordable and accountable have not been lost in the shutdown shuffle. They were discussed last week by several dozen higher-education leaders at a policy “lab” hosted by the state Office of Higher Education and the Lumina Foundation, and featuring former Macalester College President Michael McPherson, now president of the Chicago-based Spencer Foundation and an expert on U.S. student financial aid.
McPherson is skeptical about Obama’s notion that the federal student aid program can or should be used to induce colleges to educate more students more affordably. Federal aid programs function as a market-based voucher system. They allocate aid to qualifying students, not institutions. Increasingly, the students who most need those vouchers are place-bound adults with little or no opportunity to “spend” them anywhere but at their nearest public college or university. Depriving those students of aid because the only institution they can attend has a low graduation rate would be unfair and ill-suited to the nation’s goal of raising the population’s educational attainment.
Further, tying federal aid to overall graduation rates would encourage colleges to become more selective in admissions. That, too, would miss the mark. The nation needs more-educated citizens, not more schools that cater to the already gifted. Federal assistance is most needed to bring able but underprepared students up to academic speed, so they can succeed in college and careers.
Despite the flaws McPherson and other lab attendees cited in Obama’s proposal, they praised the president for responding to the nation’s unhappiness with college costs and performance. American higher education is highly decentralized and resistant to change. But that doesn’t mean that federal and state policymakers are without options for increasing the output of graduates while restraining costs, particularly for needy students. Among the promising ideas mentioned:
• Financial rewards could flow to colleges and universities that produce high graduation rates among selected student cohorts — for example, low-income students who qualify for federal Pell Grants or adult learners who need remedial instruction.
• Performance-based scholarships could be awarded directly to low-income students upon successful completion of coursework leading toward a degree. Those funds could be used for living expenses as well as for direct college costs, averting dropouts.
• Innovations in cost-effective instruction could be encouraged with competitive grants to institutions, modeled on the K-12 Race to the Top program.
• Education and career counseling for students and adult learners could be enhanced — especially in Minnesota, where high school guidance counselors serve more students per capita than in all but one other state. Better counseling could encourage students to select cost-effective college programs and avoid needless student debt.
In Minnesota, it’s gratifying to see educators and lawmakers grappling with ideas like these. They evidently recognize that brainpower is this state’s most important economic asset, and that high tuition and student debt burdens are putting that asset at risk. It would be even better — this week in particular — to see Congress do the same.