1. public funding cuts, which has caused outright poverty for the local colleges most likely to serve poor students
2. lack of professional autonomy, in which faculty, staff, and students are not allowed to do their jobs without constant interference from external bureaucrats
3. inadequate educational quality, in which student learning is eclipsed by entry and exit statistics
President Obama knows perfectly well that public tuition increases have moved in lockstep with state cuts, and said so in passing. These cuts have caused a crisis that has been particularly bad at the entry level of the college system, where the majority of poorer students start. For example, the supposedly open California Community College system turned away tens of thousands of students during the state’s budget crisis. Even as funding has stabilized, students there have their progress impeded by the fact that there are 2000 of them per advisor. This is just the tip of the iceberg of the restraints under which public colleges now operate. We have downgraded our national public university system, and wonder why it isn’t working as well as it should.
Decades of economic Reaganism generate an automatic rebuttal to these kinds of facts, which is that more money won’t help the schools—they need more rules, more compliance, and fewer unions that resist compliance. Overall this claim is false, and it is easy to see on the college level if one compares funding levels and graduation rates.
For example, in the University of Michigan system, I’ve compared the Ann Arbor flagship, with its bevy of well-to-do in- and out-of-state students, to the Dearborn and Flint campuses (relatively Arab-American and African American). I found 3 to 4 times the Pell Grant (low-income) share at the Dearborn and Flint campuses compared to the flagship; ½ the per capita tuition funds; ½ the per capita state funding; and, no huge surprise, ½ the graduation rate at the local campuses. This is a function not just of selectivity but more importantly of lesser academic services at the poorer campuses going to poorer students—less advising, counseling, tutoring, intensive feedback, mentoring, research possibilities, and other things that increase student persistence. In graduation rates, you get what you pay for.
Since no one wants big tuition hikes, the only way to increase the graduation rate is to make a major public reinvestment, starting with poor colleges with bad rates. But President Obama didn’t call for major restoration or rebuilding of state investment in public colleges, and there is only one minor tool in his auditing kit that would encourage it. His charge that colleges just raise fees and pass on the costs to the taxpayer smacked of Ronald Reagan’s waste, fraud, and abuse paradigm for public services. This can only damage the future case for the new public revenues the sector obviously needs.
This brings us to the question of professional autonomy. Autonomy is cheaper than administration, because you don't have to pay for a compliance bureaucracy. This is a big deal at universities, whose every interaction with the federal government involves complex reporting on everything from the sports programs to research grants and financial aid. Universities have to pay for this, and they charge students to do it. The Obama plan will only increase these costs, and add to the administrative bloat that is a major source of the cost growth that everyone dislikes.
There’s a deeper issue here too. Professionals have expertise in their area and auditors don’t. This means than on the whole, the professional staff and faculty who work in the classroom and laboratory trenches know more about their educational issues and answers than do senior managers on campus or in statehouses, to say nothing of Washington D.C. Authority has been shifting for decades from experts to the managers who control the experts’ organizations. K-12 micromanagement through testing is one major example, and another is the power of insurance company executives and on-site care-managers over practicing physicians, which has made medicine more expensive while in many accounts damaging the quality of primary care.
Barack Obama is a full-fledged member of audit and supervisory culture, and is willing to impair professional judgment on the ground for the sake of collecting data elsewhere. I understand the case for data and for using it to fix performance problems. This case motivates the part of the plan that will tie at least some federal financial aid to school performance, along “Race to the Top” lines. A higher education scholar I admire, Sara Goldrick-Rab, in describing herself as a fan of the president’s rating and financial aid plan, argues, "Colleges that won’t commit to providing accessible, affordable, high-quality postsecondary education should not be receiving federal Title IV funds, period." She’s right. If the plan goes through, the sector most at risk of sanctions is the subprime for-profit sector that gets 90% of its revenues from the government to produce the worst graduation and student debt rates in the country’s history. Forcing educational upgrades here would be a wonderful thing.
The catch is that an auditing program needs to distinguish colleges that won’t produce good outcomes for reasons of self-interest from colleges that can’t produce good outcomes for reasons out of their control. Many people have already pointed out that exactly those colleges that take on the challenge of underprepared or overworked or poorer students are also likely to be caught in the federal dragnet. The solution for the first group is to cut their federal subsidy. The solution for the second group is to increase their funding. How do we tell these kinds of schools apart?
Statistics alone isn’t going to tell the difference: you can't lump UM-Flint together with a Kaplan college even though the causes of their similarly poor graduate rates are completely different. You can tell the difference if you work closely with the professionals at the schools to see what the are doing, who their students are, and why, in detail, they get good or bad results. Audit blocks the reciprocity and respect on which effective reform depends. Coercion is a form of ignorance, and it’s overuse in the president’s plan will make current problems worse.
I have to stop, and will pick up with the third issue and some better alternatives this weekend.