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bully pulpit tomake increased
graduation rates a truly national
agenda, instead of a federal
one, by reaching out to states,
according to a Beltway insider.
That’s already happening.
Many states have started to set
goals for graduation rates, and
tied some public university
funding to outcomes rather
than enrollment.The Southern
Regional Education Board has
called for 16 southern states to
raise the proportion of their
populations with postsecondary
credentials to 60 percent by 2025.
But without the money
the administration hoped to
put behind it, Obama’s goal of
restoring the nation to first in
the world in 25- to 34-year-olds with postsecondary degrees
will be difficult to achieve. “It just won’t happen on a national
level,” BenMiller said. “All the exciting stuff about best online
practices and trying to get states to set up actual plans to
improve completion—all the money for that really disappeared.
Had things worked out the way they wanted, it would have
gottenmore than just attention.They could have beenmore
game changers with higher education than they’ve been.”
Nor is there likely anymoney left to come. “Given the
growing concern about the federal budget deficit, the likelihood
is that there will be enormous pressures on federal spending,”
Hartle said. “We are entering a period when budget will define
policy.” Even some of the gains of the president’s first two years
are at risk, many fear.They worry that the $2,500 tuition tax
credit will be allowed to lapse by a belt-tightening Congress,
that the Republicans who control the House will balk at any
additional spending, and that Pell grants will be frozen even as
tuition continues to go up. (SaidHartle: “Anybody who looks at
the Pell grants has to think, if Congress does decide to cut the
budget deficit, they will look at this program and say, ‘Why has
it expanded so quickly, and what can we do about it?’”)
Zemsky, who served on the Spellings Commission, thinks
the money pouring into Pell grants is misplaced anyway. “Right
amount, wrong target,” he said. He thinks those billions should
be diverted tomiddle schools, helping higher education by
improving the preparation of its applicants. “Spendingmore
andmore on Pell grants does two things: It just increases the
flow of funds higher education is extraordinarily successful
in soaking up by increasing tuition, and it encourages people
who aren’t ready for college to go anyway,” Zemsky said. He
also proposes that Obama organize a U.S. version of the multi-
stage Bologna Process, which standardized academic degrees
in Europe, helping smooth the credit-transfer process that so
often frustrates students into abandoning their educations.
“These are the kinds of places where the battle is being lost, and
I don’t see anything in the graduation initiative that even begins
to address them,” Zemsky said.
Foundations have, though.They’ve stepped into the
funding breachmore forcefully than during previous
administrations, pushing higher education to change by
wielding tens of millions of dollars in competitive grants. “The
amount of money those groups are going to be able to provide
is way less than what the federal government could, but it’s
not chump change either,” BenMiller said.The model was the
influence during the healthcare debates of the RobertWood
Johnson Foundation and others, said JamieMerisotis, president
of the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education,
which focuses on increasing postsecondary enrollment and
completion. “Because what a lot of us do is so closely aligned
with what the president chose to identify as the administration’s
higher education goals, it turns out there’s a lot of opportunity
for collaboration,”Merisotis said.
Melinda Gates, co-chairman of the Bill &Melinda
Gates Foundation, which is also working on improving
postsecondary completion, said, “We see ourselves as a tiny
piece of the pie. We’re here to be catalysts to help that change.
That’s howwe view our work.” After all, as Merisotis put
it, “Philanthropy has the capacity to do what government
historically did, which is more of the analytic work, more of the
support for innovation.”
That innovation might be happening more slowly than
the president would like. “College leaders are recognizing the
need for significant change, although I don’t see the evidence
yet that they’ve figured out how to get from there to here,”
Merisotis said. “I think that the hunker-down-and-wait-it-
out mentality, which we even saw at the beginning of this
economic crisis, is transforming into a commitment to think
the unthinkable. There’s a recognition that change needs to
happen. But
there’s also clearly
a gulf between
thinking the
unthinkable and
taking the action
to do it.”
Obama is as
serious as ever,
he insisted to his
audience in the
East Room.
In the 19th
century, Obama
said, America
bankrolled public
schools and land-grant colleges; in the 20th, the country
invested in the GI Bill and math and science education. “But
in recent years, we’ve failed to live up to this legacy, especially
in higher education,” he added.
“That not only represents a huge waste of potential; in the
global marketplace it represents a threat to our position as the
world’s leading economy. To use an expression familiar to those
of you from the midwest: You don’t eat your seed corn. We can’t
accept less investment in our young people if our country is
going tomove forward.”
u
JonMarcus is a writer based in Boston who covers higher
education in the U.S. for the (UK)
Times Higher Education
magazine.
“College leaders are recognizing the need for
significant change,” says Jamie Merisotis,
president of the Lumina Foundation for Education.
Dennis Brack, Black Star, for CrossTalk
Private, for-profit
schools now account
for nearly a quarter of
all Pell grant spending,
or $4.3 billion last year
alone—and students
borrow billions more per
year to pay their tuition.