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Education. “It rubs against the traditional grain of institutional
autonomy.” Hartle said ACEmembers’ objection to the credit
definition “is simply that when it comes to postsecondary
education, one size doesn’t fit all, and the federal government
has no choice but to impose fairly generalized regulations
on all institutions, whether it’s a welding school or a research
university.The issue is not that the federal government
shouldn’t make sure its money is well spent and impose
appropriate regulations. When any industry is getting nearly
$150 billion a year in federal support, some reasonable federal
regulation and oversight has to be expected.The challenge
is to find the right balance and not insist on a uniform set of
outcome measures for all institutions.”
Balanced or not—and whether or not universities expected
it from the Obama camp—more regulation is all but certain,
most observers say. “The role the federal government has to
play in all of this is always tenuous,” said Education Sector’s
BenMiller. “You don’t want them to be getting heavily involved
in curriculummatters. But you do want them to create an
incentive for colleges and states to keep their tuition affordable
andmake sure students are graduating with credible degrees.
As it stands now, the federal government is the rich uncle
who hands out the money for financial aid, but after you
get the money you do whatever you want with it.” As for the
continuing resistance fromuniversities and colleges to greater
regulation, Miller said: “Any time you’ve been operating for a
long period of time without much oversight, there’s going to be
a great deal of pushback.They don’t really want people to take
a closer look.”
And higher education has been pushing back, opposing
provisions of Obama’s proposal for a $2.5 billion Race to the
Top-like College Access and Completion Fund, which would
have been awarded to states that promised to improve their
graduation rates. Private, nonprofit universities in particular
chafed at the idea of outsiders setting goals for them tomeet.
In the end, the plan was dropped in favor of a $750million
boost to the existing College Access Challenge Grants, designed
to increase the number of university-enrolled low-income
students. Universities didn’t like the president’s idea of diverting
federal Perkins loans to schools that held down their tuition.
That failed, too. And they helped thwart a plan to lower the
charitable tax deduction for the rich, which would have raised
$318 billion over ten years but alsomight have cost them
As unemployment has become Obama’s single most
persistent political problem, universities have also grown
uncomfortable with what they say is his administration’s
narrowing focus on higher education as a means of training
Americans for work. InOctober, with the midterm election
looming, the president announced a public-private partnership
linking community colleges with companies including
McDonald’s and the Gap to improve job training. And while
he and other high-ranking government officials refer to the
colleges’ educational missions, too, it is often second to the idea
that they should helpmatch classroom skills more closely to
workplace needs.
“Getting Americans back to work is America’s great
challenge,” Jill Biden, a community college instructor and
the wife of Vice President Joe Biden, told community college
leaders at theWhite House
summit. “And community
colleges are critically
important to preparing
graduates for those jobs.”
Community colleges, the
president chimed in, “aren’t
just the key to the future of
their students.They’re also
one of the keys to the future
of our country.”
But higher education
isn’t solely about job training,
said Debra Humphreys, vice
president of the American
Association of Colleges and
Universities, which advocates
for the liberal arts. “Even if
you stay on the economic
front, if you’re talking only
about the role that higher
education is playing to
prepare more andmore students for a changing workplace,
there’s a lack of understanding of how jobs in today’s economy
require more than just vocational training. People have in their
minds a very 20th-century idea of the economy. What I think is
emerging in the 21st-century economy is that students actually
need a broader set of skills and abilities that are provided not
just by narrow training but by the broader college learning that
America has traditionally excelled at.”
What Obama could do better, Humphreys said, “is to
help the public see the difference between narrow training
and real college. We have to create ladders of opportunity so
students, nomatter where they start, have a base of learning
that will allow them to come back into the system and continue
to build their portfolios of skills. And at the moment it’s a
bit toomuddled about what the Obama administration is
trying to advance. Without these distinctions being clear, too
much emphasis could go toward training
programs that won’t really prepare students
for long-term success.”
With prospects bleak for much new
funding in the next two years, speaking out
may be the most effective thing Obama
can do now to keep his higher education
strategy on track, according toWashington
observers. “Not everything takes money,”
said Zumeta. “Talk does help.”
“We’ve got our work cut out for us,”
Kanter conceded. “Like everyone in this
country, we have to domore with less,”
she said, adding that the president has
“painted a picture of a call to action. We
have helped bring to the forefront the need
for Americans to go to college and complete college. We have
a lot of challenges in the funding of that, and a lot of starts and
stops, but the country understands we have a lot of reforms
under way.”
Obama and his teamnow have an opportunity to use their
Robert Zemsky, of the University of Pennsylvania’s
Institute for Research on Higher Education, says
that if funding is tied to results in higher education,
universities can simply rig the game by lowering
barriers to graduation.
John Troha, Black Star, for CrossTalk
Meeting the goal
of the president’s
American Graduation
Initiative would
require graduating
an additional eight
million students by
the end of the decade.