13 February 2013

Higher Ed and the State of the Union, Part I: "The Soaring Cost of Higher Education"

In last night's State of the Union Address, higher education policy was, shall we say, not a featured player. A whole 177 words were devoted to the subject, taking up about 90 seconds in a speech almost exactly one hour. Here they are, in their entirety (though if you can read more than two words per second, you might just skip to the transcript below):

Now, even with better high schools, most young people will need some higher education. It’s a simple fact: the more education you have, the more likely you are to have a job and work your way into the middle class. But today, skyrocketing costs price way too many young people out of a higher education, or saddle them with unsustainable debt.

Through tax credits, grants, and better loans, we have made college more affordable for millions of students and families over the last few years. But taxpayers cannot continue to subsidize the soaring cost of higher education. Colleges must do their part to keep costs down, and it’s our job to make sure they do. Tonight, I ask Congress to change the Higher Education Act, so that affordability and value are included in determining which colleges receive certain types of federal aid. And tomorrow, my Administration will release a new “College Scorecard” that parents and students can use to compare schools based on a simple criteria: where you can get the most bang for your educational buck.
The ideas presented there were fleshed out somewhat by a document released by the White House accompanying the speech. In it, the President proposes changes especially in accreditation: 
The President will call on Congress to consider value, affordability, and student outcomes in making determinations about which colleges and universities receive access to federal student aid, either by incorporating measures of value and affordability into the existing accreditation system; or by establishing a new, alternative system of accreditation that would provide pathways for higher education models and colleges to receive federal student aid based on performance and results.
Some education policy folks have been ecstatic about the proposals. Kevin Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, called this "the biggest change to federal higher education policy since at least the Higher Education Amendments of 1972" because of how it could reshape the relationship between regional accreditation and financial aid.

But don't count me among them. Nothing in the speech last night makes me particularly happy. Over the next few days I'll tackle the three parts of the policy proposal: the perception that the costs of higher education are out of control, the idea that the ability to offer aid should be rooted in value and affordability, and the College Scorecard.

"Skyrocketing Costs"

Faithful readers of this blog (thanks, Mom) have heard my rants thoughts on this before. The "skyrocketing costs" trope of contemporary higher education policy continues to confuse the cost of educating students with the cost charged to students. The fact is that expenditures by state universities are relatively stable. At UVU, as I detailed the first time I hashed this out, real cost per student has actually declined since the 1990s. The tuition increases are making up for drastic cuts in funding from state legislatures.Colleges are already doing their part and more; UVU's tuition increases have actually been much less than the lost state funding. The costs of education thus aren't increasing, but they are being shifted from state taxpayers to students, and as the increased cost of attendance increases financial aid awards, to federal taxpayers.

State legislators a playing a very rational game. As long as the state taxpayers don't connect both federal spending increases to tuition increases and then tuition increases to state funding cuts, and as long as both the public and the media blame university administrations for those increases, legislators can take credit for cutting taxes while avoiding blame for increasing costs to students and their families.

There really isn't much more fat to cut. Exorbitant administrator salaries? Find someone in the private sector willing to manage the 300 employees that a dean might have for a few ticks below $100,000 per year. Coddled benefits? That security, and my belief in education, is why I work for less than half of a private-sector business intelligence analyst; if you want me to take private-sector benefits I'm going to expect a private-sector salary.

Make faculty work year-round? "Summer vacation" is, for higher education, simply free labor: You don't get paid, but you get fired if you don't publish and summer is the only time you can. Make them teach more than "12 hours per week"? You're confusing credit hours with labor hours; it usually takes me two hours outside of class to prepare for a one-hour lecture/discussion. More adjuncts? We're already above half of our student credit hours. MOOCs? You won't get more graduates with course completion rates of 5%.

What more do you want us to do, Mr. President?

The Next Installment: "Value and Affordability"

No comments:

Post a Comment