Grading Obama on Higher Education: Part II

By Matthew Lynch

Several weeks ago, I discussed President Obama’s education record in my introduction to education class. In particular, we talked about P-20 education, which begins in preschool and ends with graduate school. Predictably, the debate became quite contentious. Most of us had to agree to disagree on the most central points of educational politics. Partly in response to this debate, though, I decided to write an assessment of Obama’s education record in several areas of P-20 education issuing a letter grade (A-F) to make my position on his record abundantly clear.

Here is part II of my assessment of the president’s major initiatives in postsecondary education.

Plans to Make College More Affordable. While not a direct K-12 initiative, the President’s desire to make college education affordable for all Americans will impact future K-12 classrooms. In August, 2013, the President announced plans to assign a ratings systems to colleges by the 2015 school year, factoring tuition, graduation rate, debt and earnings ratios of graduates, and percentage of low-income students.

The grand plan? To base the amount of federal financial aid colleges receive on the rankings system by 2018. The overall principle is not to call out colleges but rather to make them more accountable to students, to ensure that every American is able to attend college if they want to. Long term, this initiative aims to enhance teacher quality in the classrooms, particularly in urban settings. Having more lower-income college graduates should enhance the entire education system and the college scorecard initiative is a step in that direction based on research, including evidence suggesting that the most effective teachers are generally those who come from the same background

Recently, President Obama also made waves when he visited three college campuses and talked about the possibility of implementing a rating system to provide the public with greater details about the total cost, graduation rates, and alumni earnings of individual colleges and universities. Students choosing schools with higher ratings would have more access to Pell Grants and affordable loan programs. The plan is twofold. First it aims to put more useful information into the hands of consumers. Second, it aims to provide better affordability for young people who seek out higher education.

The rising cost of a college degree has been a concern of the Obama administration throughout both terms in the White House. College graduates in 2010 left their schools with an average of $26,000 in debt, leading to higher student loan debt in America than credit card debt.

College Scorecard Proposal. Obama’s “college scorecard” proposal is just one more step in the right direction. The system aims to make colleges more accountable to the federal government. Right now federal student aid is doled out mainly on college enrollment numbers, to the tune of $150 billion annually, and there is no accountability for that money.

Numerous publications claim to have the perfect formula for ranking the “best colleges and universities” but none are officially sanctioned by the government. The President’s ranking plan would avoid the fluff of other rating systems and address the core of educational matters: cost, graduation rates, and employment rates for graduates.

The college ranking plan aims to benefit minority students in particular as well. Though minority college student numbers are rising, 61 percent of college students in 2010 were considered Caucasian compared to just 14 percent Black students, 13 percent Hispanic students and 6 percent Asian or Pacific Islander students. Based on these statistics alone, minority students are at a disadvantage when it comes to attending and graduating from college.

A rankings system providing more grant money and more affordable loan options to students aims to make the dream of a college a reality to more minorities. As more first-generation minorities attend colleges, choosing schools with high graduation rates (many of which likely have strong guidance policies in place) and good job placement will mean more career successes. Not only does the plan aim to drive down individual costs of college attendance, but it aims to ensure that those same students complete their college training and find work. A ranking system with federal oversight will aim to put pressure on institutions of higher learning to perform well, benefitting attendees.

Solely on higher education record, I will have to give President Obama an A. The Obama administration’s education agenda began in the midst of one of the worst economic downturns since the Great Depression. Since his inauguration, President Obama and Arne Duncan have aggressively tackled the tough problems in higher education, and have made genuine progress. He has certainly earned his A in my opinion.


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