Below is a response to President Obama’s August 22 higher education speech from the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, a coalition of more than 60 academic unions, faculty organizations, public-education advocates and labor associations.
We urge President Obama to discuss his plan for higher education with faculty, staff, students and parents.
A White House fact sheet released in support of President Obama’s plan notes that “declining state funding has been the biggest reason for rising tuition at public institutions.” Any plan to rescue college affordability simply must begin by addressing such harsh facts as these:
- Between 2008 and 2013, state funding for higher education as a percentage of state personal income declined by 22.6%;
- States have cut their annual investment in higher education by nearly half since 1980 (February 2013 report from Postsecondary Education Opportunity);
- As a result, institutions have both increased tuition and diverted funding from instruction, so that 75% of the faculty now work on temporary, low-wage contracts without benefits, which undermine their ability to properly serve students, especially the most underprepared and underprivileged;
- Unless current trends change, many states are in a “Race to Zero” in funding higher education.
Unfortunately, beyond exhorting states to spend more, the president’s plan offers no direct solution to this problem.
As three reports by the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education detail, however, reasonable alternatives exist. As our reports demonstrate, it would take only a relatively small commitment of resources to restore higher education funding levels to previous norms.
Instead, President Obama’s plan endorses proposals that, at best, tinker around the edges of the problem and could have hugely negative consequences for students and for the future of higher education. In the absence of a mandate for increased investment, the president’s proposal to reduce time to graduation is likely to promote a cheapened curriculum. This is hardly a formula for increasing American competiveness during an era of intensified global competition.
The president’s comments on massive open online courses (MOOCs) and online technology seem uninformed about the dismal completion rates for MOOCs or research suggesting the serious problems online classes present for many students – particularly community college students and less well-prepared students.
In the coming weeks, the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education will release papers on these and other topics related to MOOCs and the rush to online learning in higher education.
Tying funding to graduation rates also has the potential for negative unintended consequences – to protect their “ratings,” colleges could simply decrease standards or screen out less prepared applicants, as we have seen some K-12 schools do when faced with similar incentives. While matriculating and graduating more of our college-age population is certainly a worthy goal, quantitative measurements of success are likely to benefit mainly those institutions already serving the best-prepared and most-privileged students and which are already among the most well-funded. Establishment of a federal rating system, such as that proposed by the president, could also endanger the very diversity and freedom that have made the American higher education system the envy of the world.
Fortunately, these and other devilish details in the president’s plan are already being discussed. We urge President Obama to discuss his plan for higher education with faculty, staff, students and their parents.
While it is clear that outside groups like the Bill and Melinda Gates and Lumina foundations have had enormous influence in shaping these proposals, to craft a successful plan, the president and the secretary of education would also do well to consider the ideas of those with actual experiences “in the trenches” of higher education.