The debate (if it can be elevated to that distinction) over President Obama’s proposal to tie future federal financial aid for colleges and universities to a broad new government rating system is instructive - but not of how to make a college education more affordable or what’s best for students.
Instead, it tells us more than we want to know about the dysfunction that is the federal government, the sorry state of our oh-so-partisan politics and the higher education industry. None of it is good.
Obama’s stated goal, to keep down college costs, is worthy. But the way his proposal would go about that is classic federal government: give points for not just afford ability but a host of other “goals” that may reward schools for things that aren’t necessarily part of the equation - average student loan debt, graduation rates and the average earnings of graduates.
And all of this data would have to be collected, passed on and rated Obama is also seeking to give colleges a “bonus” based on the number of graduates who received Pell Grants.
The words were barely out of Obama’s mouth when Republicans weighed in. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, the top Republican on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said Obama wanted to take “a good idea for one state and (force) all 6,000 institutions of higher education to do the exact same thing ...” The proposal does no such thing, but the claim laid the foundation for a bigger stretch: That Obama wants to turn “Washington into a sort of national school board ...” a claim straight out of the “government is too big” GOP playbook.
For colleges and universities, the proposal could mean millions of federal aid dollars - an issue much too important to actually take a stand. Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education a lobbyist for colleges and universities in Washington, commented but said absolutely nothing.
“This is extraordinarily complicated stuff, and it’s not clear we have the complete data or accurate data,” she said. What’s higher ed without data?
An Obama proposal that has gotten little notice probably should get more: create a $1 billion college “Race to the Top” competition to reward states for significant policy changes while containing tuition costs.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that amid all the back and forth, the people not heard from - or represented - were students. And it shouldn’t be surprising that the afford ability crisis that threatens higher ed got drowned, again, in politics and babble. In the meantime, families will keep looking for ways to give their children a chance at a degree, and students will take on more and more debt.