NAICU Washington Update

President Obama’s Higher Education Proposals Stir Much Debate

September 05, 2013

President Obama’s plan to make college more affordable, announced August 22 during a three-campus bus tour in New York and Pennsylvania has drawn continuing media attention, and has led to much debate in academia - even as details about his proposals remain vague. 

The President’s plan calls for tying financial aid to college performance, using a new rating system to be developed by the Department of Education before the 2015-16 academic year.  It also would hold students receiving student aid, and the colleges they attend, responsible for making progress toward a degree.  The President's proposals also aim to give consumers clear and comparable information on colleges' performance, to help students select the institution that best fits their personal goals. 

At this point, little exists beyond the four-page outline released on August 22.  The White House has said it plans to work with the college community in developing the details.  Still, it isn't clear which - if any - aspects of the proposal are up for debate.

Congressional reaction has been cautious.  Key Republican education leaders in the House (John Kline) and Senate (Lamar Alexander) issued carefully-worded statements in reaction to the President’s outline.  Democratic education leaders Sen. Tom Harkin and Rep. George Miller have issued more supportive statements.

Meanwhile, many NAICU members have issued public statements on the possible effects - both positive and negative - that they see in the President’s proposals.  Here is a sampling of those reactions (click on the link to read the full opinion piece).  A more extensive compilation of coverage and comments on the proposals is available on the NAICU website.  



“The forms of accountability that the president proposes are important, but they are not sufficient. Moreover, if adopted without sufficient nuance in their application, they have the potential for unintended consequences—the temptation, for example, to produce more graduates at the expense of academic standards and adequate preparation. When isolated from other measures of the quality of education, some of the more easily quantifiable indicators can be misleading.”

 - Carolyn A. (Biddy) Martin, President, Amherst College

“Notwithstanding my profound and serious misgivings about the "Plan to Make College More Affordable," I share the appreciation and gratefulness of most college and university presidents for President Obama's previous efforts to deal with the problem of college cost. We here at St. John's College join him in this effort, as we continue to pledge our own institutional resources to making the education we offer affordable to all who apply.”

 - Christopher B. Nelson, President, St. John’s College Annapolis

“President Obama's plan is shockingly devoid of any sense of respect for, even understanding of, the nature of teaching and learning at the collegiate level, the careful cultivation of the life of the mind through a remarkable diversity of academic programs, the advancement of intellect beyond rote lower learning models, the inculcation in the student of the ability to think independently, to engage in deeply critical analysis, to pursue innovative research, to discover new knowledge, to create new tools for human advancement. The worth of higher education cannot be reduced to the average salaries of recent graduates.”

- Patricia McGuire, President, Trinity Washington University

 “Students and families borrow for college, and make no mistake, the rising amount of borrowing is the catalyst for all of this discussion. The Obama administration knows that the ticket for young people for a brighter and more prosperous future depends on access to education. But to blame institutions without any detailed study as to why costs have risen is ludicrous.”

- Ed H. Moore, President and CEO, Independent Colleges and Universities of Florida

 “Each family is unique. Given the exact same data, families are going to make quite different decisions about colleges, because their needs, goals and circumstances differ.  So I would be very cautious about creating some sort of composite “value” rating of colleges and universities. Any rating system I can imagine assumes that different families care about the same things and place the same priority on each of those things. And, in reality, they do not.  Students make choices based on what is right for them and for their families. Transparent, easy-to-access information is what they need, not a “one-size-fits-all” rating system.”

- Ronald J. Daniels, President, Johns Hopkins University

"The irony hit me immediately. On August 22, President Obama unveiled plans to rate and reward colleges and universities based on outcomes as measured by the earnings of their graduates. And yet, just a few months ago, President Obama recognized Gettysburg College and four others as national models for our commitment to civic engagement and community service. I'm having trouble reconciling these two instances. Where in President Obama's plan for evaluating institutions of higher education is the role that a college or university plays in preparing students for community service, for lives of responsible citizenship?"

Janet Riggs, President, Gettysburg College

“While I share President Obama’s concern about college affordability and student debt, I worry about any ranking scheme that can be influenced by the fashions, or the definitions, of the moment. “Value” has many possible interpretations, and the thought that the standard – and thus the rankings – might change from one administration to another is horrifying.  It is well established that people not only tend to earn more money, but also to have a better life, if they get a college education. However, it is simplistic, and ultimately mischievous, to suggest that students should choose their major on the basis of “graduate earnings.”

- Sanford J. Ungar, President, Goucher College

“The rankings done by the private sector, including [U.S. News and World Report], are very controversial. There is no reason to expect the federal government to do this better than the private sector, mainly because the idea behind a unique ranking that is appropriate for all students doesn’t make any sense. Different students care about different things, and the rankings combine a variety of measures that may not be relevant or important to all students.  What has been helpful to students and families from the rankings is the information that has become available as a result. The government could help students and families by continuing to make data available. But, combining those data into yet another single ranking will not be helpful.”

- Catharine Hill, President, Vassar College

“These issues of affordability, access and accountability and how we set and determine standards are critically important to the future of education in this nation.  Any new ranking system for colleges and universities must recognize that all institutions are unique; therefore, it will be challenging to develop a ranking system that accurately reflects each institution's strengths and challenges.”

- Jackie Jenkins-Scott, President, Wheelock College

“It is deeply disappointing when the president of the United States opines about college costs in simplistic and finger-wagging terms, echoing the sensationalism of pundits and the media as they discuss the "reform" and "lasting change" needed in higher education.” 

- Donald R. Eastman III, President, Eckerd College

“Overall, I applaud President Obama for focusing the nation’s attention on educational quality and access. I also applaud the President for entering boldly into this area that is critical for the future of our nation and for inviting leaders from across higher education into an important national debate. I am confident we can make progress together.”

- David Skorton, President, Cornell University


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