NAICU Washington Update

Obama Administration Hears Concerns of NAICU Members on President’s Higher Education Plan

November 26, 2013

NAICU members expressed their views on President Obama’s plan to make higher education more affordable for the middle class through a number of venues in recent weeks, including public listening sessions and conversations with Administration officials.

The Department of Education held public listening sessions during the past three weeks at four campuses: California State University-Dominguez Hills in Los Angeles; University of Northern Iowa, Cedar Falls; George Mason University, Fairfax, VA; and Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge. NAICU members spoke at three of the sessions.

Several official and unofficial conversations with both Education Department and White House officials were held during NAICU’s Fall Leadership Conference. The conference brings together NAICU Board and Committee members, the independent college state executive network, the NAICU Secretariat, and the Annapolis Group.

Generally, NAICU members welcome the president’s call to improve access, affordability and transparency, and agreed that these were important national issues for higher education to address. However, members were concerned about the plan to strongly equate educational value with earnings, the overall idea that the federal government would be defining value, and the creation of a single metric to measure value despite the many different types of colleges and universities in our nation.

Official Listening Sessions

Several representatives from NAICU member institutions spoke at the public listening sessions. At the George Mason University listening session, Mitchell B. Reiss, president of Washington College, Chestertown, MD, submitted thoughtful responses to the president’s higher education reforms, followed by a list of questions for the administration to consider as it moves forward with this proposal. In prepared remarks, he acknowledged “the President’s attention to some of the challenges that all colleges and universities face these days,” and highlighted the President’s comment: “a higher education is the single best investment you can make in your future.”

In addressing the proposed reforms, Reiss noted the value of education is subjective, and if measured in monetary terms, “it fundamentally mischaracterizes the nature of higher education.” He also endorsed the First in the World initiative, which could provide “venture capital” for private, nonprofit colleges to scale up their effective strategies for providing the support students need to complete college.

Similar concerns were expressed at the California session by Jeanne Ortiz, vice president and dean of students at Whittier Colleges. She said: “It is imperative that the presidential scorecard takes into account that value and affordability are not synonymous terms. The value of a private liberal arts education is exponential because it prepares graduates not only with the knowledge and skills employers want, but with a commitment to civic engagement for the common good.”

In Baton Rouge, Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, made an impassioned presentation about the unintended consequences of a college rating system on a college like Dillard — an HBCU just recovered from Hurricane Katrina with increased costs he can’t control. Kimbrough argued technology upgrades, health care costs, and increased security have been driving up costs, while the institution tries to keep tuition down for students.

Throughout the listening sessions, Administration officials maintained nothing is written in stone, although they continue to talk about a value metric to be linked to the President’s Scorecard, and possibly also affect the distribution of student aid. The student aid linkage would require Congressional approval and is unlikely at this point. Current plans are that the metric would be made public later in the 2014 calendar year.

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